The receptionist handed over the card key for the room with a slightly apologetic instruction. “You put it in the slot beside the door, this way round, then wait” – he gave the word “wait” a special emphasis – “until you hear a click, then the door is open.” Oh, the vagaries of the hotel card key. Oh, the incompetence, so the receptionist hinted, of the average hotel guest.
But I did wait, and the door did open. Then the difficulties began. I couldn’t find the little cradle that such cards often slot into to operate the electricity. I searched high and low, but to no effect. Fortunately, a chambermaid was still at work down the corridor. I looked pathetic, affected my best Italian pronunciation of “elettricita”, and she pointed to a horizontal slot actually in the wall, unmarked and almost invisible. The power sprang to life. I could now make the door say, “Do not disturb”; I could make it say “Clean the room, please”. I could, in theory, set the room temperature and the air conditioning (though I couldn’t make them work; my fault, I’m sure).
Someone, it seems, has sold Italian hotels, even small ones, a job lot of these all-embracing “smart” systems; I’ve come across quite a few of them over the past 10 days, and become adept at wiggling the card in the slot when, as often, it did not immediately connect.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of card keys and the eco-friendly power-saving they facilitate. But, as the brains behind the recent failed launch of Microsoft’s Windows 8 learnt to their cost, those who spend all their waking hours refining hi-tech gadgetry can get so far ahead of the rest of us that they end up making our lives more complicated, not less.
Italians have long been in the vanguard of techie progress. On assignment in Rome in the late 1980s – long before mobile phones, the internet and online anything, a time when we foreign correspondents routinely dismantled phone sockets and teased out the wires to send reports electronically – the press room had screens on wheels that scrolled the latest news from major international news agencies, continually updated. They were elegant, efficient, state of the art, but – best of all – you didn’t need to know how to work them.
Don’t forget about Helen
Tim Peake is to be Britain’s first new astronaut in 20 years, is he? I don’t wish to detract from his achievement or, indeed, from his aspiration. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy. But the attention he is receiving would have you believe that what a certain Helen Sharman, from Sheffield, left, did when she became the first Briton somehow doesn’t count.
Sharman went up in a Russian Soyuz rocket in 1991, and maybe that was her problem. Arguably, she was a cosmonaut, not an astronaut, as she went as part of the then Soviet space programme. But Peake, too, will be borne to the international space station on a Russian rocket, which has been the only way of getting there since the US Space Shuttle was mothballed.
Some reports described Peake as the first official British astronaut, in that he is sponsored by the British Government, whereas Sharman was funded jointly by a private consortium and the Soviet state as part of a diplomatic and scientific charm offensive. Other British men have travelled in space but Sharman was the first of either gender. She deserves her due.