The rebel in me took a certain perverse pleasure from hearing the chief executive of British Airways announce that the company had just placed an order for 36 new planes. The gusto with which Willie Walsh defended their eco-friendliness, at a time when flying has become an experience most of us can admit to enjoying only after a long and apologetic preface, was quite simply a delight.
Or it would have been had I not been rudely awoken a couple of hours earlier by the first jumbo of the morning, heralding the swarm of stacked planes that gathers over central London in the pre-dawn hour awaiting – a humorous touch this – the end of night-time noise restrictions at Heathrow. Why the flight path traverses the very centre of the city defeats me, on safety grounds, quite apart from the noise at such an unsociable hour, but this is not something that seems to trouble our MP.
As you will understand, my own attitude to flying is best described as conflicted. A clear sky over the Alps, a map-like panorama of Siberia and Lake Baikal, the reflection of moonlight in the Nile, the gorges of the Tarn in sharp relief before the swoop down over the flamingos of the Camargue, the receding lights of Manhattan... These are all the privileges of flying – and they are available to every passenger. You do not need to fly first-class to relish the view.
Such memories from many years of flying might also explain why I am an exception to the rule formulated by the intrepid new head of the British Airports Authority, Sir Nigel Rudd. Interviewed earlier this month, soon after he had accepted the job and when dissatisfaction with Heathrow was at its height, Sir Nigel promised to make passengers' lives easier. "You will never jump up and down and say 'whoopee I am going to the airport today'," he said, "but it could be a more pleasant experience."
I might no longer jump up and down, but I do still let slip a quiet "whoopee" at the thought of going to the airport, and especially, dare I say, at the thought of going to those slightly battered, old-fashioned and overtaken airports such as Heathrow or JFK. Arriving at Heathrow, in particular, is like entering an alternative centre of the world. Watch the multi-coloured, multi-cultured streams of humanity making for their separate departure lounges. Guess who is what nationality; guess where they are going. Take a glance at the boards for arrivals and departures – yes, mostly, they are working – and sense the freedom to set off, in theory, for anywhere you choose.
There are times, of course, when airports are fetid hell-holes, when they simply cannot cope. Heathrow shows its age. It needs sprucing up. We used to be good at toilets; now they need a drastic overhaul. Everything could be neater and cleaner – a spot of the health secretary's "deep-clean" perhaps? – and the signposting contradicts itself. If I, as a native, have to ask several times how to reach the train or the bus, how forbidding is this bustling commercial mess to a newcomer?
It is high time Britain grasped, as so many countries already have, that the airport is the first face a country presents to its visitors. Heathrow's poorly marshalled queues, its scruffy immigration officials (now supposedly in uniform), its hustling to spend, spend, spend, may all be a fair warning of what to expect the other side of the barrier. Airport-enthusiast as I am, even I wish Britain had a more efficient and enticing shop-window.
No way to honour a great man
Remember all the self-congratulatory razzamatazz that surrounded the unveiling of the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square? Well, go and look at it now the stage-set has been removed. Mandela stands at an outer corner. He is smaller in scale than his fellow statues, positioned on a plinth one third the size of theirs, and quite dominated by Robert Peel (1788-1850), who looms far too close behind him. The ensemble is not only aesthetically displeasing, but demeaning. You could easily mistake this bronze Mandela for a child amid grown men. The expression "little brother" comes to mind, with all its colonial connotations. Could the capital's cultural elite not have done better for their hero than this?
* As speculation swirls about a snap election, so the breast-beating resumes about the growing preference of Britain's voters to stay at home. The extension of postal voting in selected regions was a scandalous invitation to corruption, which duly ensued. Equally ill-conceived – but as yet mercifully unimplemented – is the extension of the franchise to 16-year-olds. E-voting is favoured by those who believe that inconvenience rather than disengagement accounts for poor turn-out, while some countries secure a high turn-out by making voting compulsory.
All this confuses problem and solution. You need look no further than individual constituency turn-outs to see what is wrong. Where there is a real contest, the turn-out rivals the 80 per cent seen at recent elections in France and Germany. Where people believe their vote matters, they use it – and when they don't, they don't. Redraw the boundaries, reduce the number of safe seats, and watch the turn-out soar.Reuse content