We forget what a complete palaver it used to be going abroad at all. Before Mrs Thatcher came to power, you were not permitted to take more than £500 out of the country at any one time. For years after that, the limits on technology meant that you had to arrange travellers’ cheques or bank transfers, or stash large amounts of cash on you. To book hotels, you had to track one down in a guidebook or similar, not really knowing whether it was any good or not, and book it over the telephone. Alternatively, you entrusted yourself to a travel company who packaged the whole deal.
That was for a week’s holiday. Anyone wanting to go and work abroad, or live there for any extended period, had to overcome all these barriers, and, even in Europe, there were all sorts of additional legal restrictions about travel, residency, police registration and so on.
David Beckham’s move to a Paris football club is a chance to think on how much things have changed in 30 or so years. His wife and children are going to stay in London; he will commute and live in a hotel. Hardly anyone has the means of the Beckhams, but this way of life is not unusual these days. Large numbers of British citizens are being driven, or are choosing, to work abroad – 4.7 million British citizens live abroad, at the last count; 149,000 left in 2011 alone.
And these figures don’t include people like me, whose domestic circumstances require a commute with a plane. To spend the weekend with my husband, I need to get on the plane to Geneva, if he’s not coming to London. In the autumn, a nicely timed combination of a sabbatical for me and a secondment for him meant four months of moving between London and New York. These days, it’s easy, and not impossibly expensive. Flying to Geneva is often cheaper than going by train to Liverpool.
Travel between capital cities in Europe and even across continents has been transformed in the past 30 years. What hasn’t been transformed is the travel within Britain, especially train travel. The announcement of HS2 promises the sort of fast movement between regional capitals which would be routine in almost every other major European economy. It will cost a huge amount of money; it won’t happen for 20 years, at least; it should have happened 20 years ago.
No wonder the elite has turned its attention away from great provincial British cities, and towards Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam. It is just easier to get there. And provincial towns, too, are relatively isolated from each other. Try getting across the country, from Bangor to Hull, for instance.
If you want to go the 100 miles from Oxford to Cambridge by train, leaving today and coming back tomorrow, it is going to take two and a half to three hours each way, and cost you £100 in standard class. You might as well go to Paris. Not many of these challenges will be resolved by HS2.
The mentality of the capital has turned away from the country and towards the rest of the world. We were supposed not to have to travel so much, in the new world of electronic communications. That hasn’t happened. What we have is an ease of transport, an ease of existence between different cultures compared to 30 or 40 years ago. On the other hand, going 100 miles by rail within England is probably exactly the same as it was when Dr Beeching left it, apart from, of course, costing a pound a mile.
Screen goddesses aren’t what they were
Twenty-two years ago, I was in Sicily when, all of a sudden, a cry went up from the street. “La Lolla! La Lolla!” Awestruck, thrilled Sicilian men of a certain age were acclaiming the appearance of that most characteristic of Italian sirens, Gina Lollobrigida.
She’s hardly been in a movie for 40 years. She still looks so magnificent there could hardly be any doubt about her appearance, still calling up fond memories of that glorious piece of biblical tat, Solomon and Sheba, with Yul Brynner (she played Sheba).
It appears, however, that not everyone is as familiar with La Lolla’s appearance as those 1990 Sicilian fans. She claims that her lover, Javier Rigau y Rafols, went through a marriage ceremony in Barcelona with a woman called Maria Pilar Guimera Gabilondo, who impersonated her. I have seen a picture of Senora Gabilondo. It is fair to say that she is never likely to stop traffic in the street in the same way.
This extraordinary story made me wonder about my long-standing difficulty in recognising Hollywood actors today. I must have seen Scarlett Johansson in half a dozen movies. Still, I have absolutely no idea what she looks like. She just looks like someone with regular features, very much like a number of other actors of the day. The problem isn’t limited to women actors. I wish I knew what Shia LaBeouf looked like, or Ryan Reynolds, who was, indeed, married to Scarlett Johansson during a confusing period. If Maria Pilar Guimera Gabilondo wants to make a profession out of her alleged impersonation, she would stand much more chance if she put on a straight blond wig, and aimed at the modern-day starlet. Nobody knows what they look like. On the other hand, there is only one Lollobrigida, and only ever will be.It’s amazing anyone could have thought for a second they could have impersonated her.