Sunday, December 10, 2006

Come Fly with Me

There’s an old Frank Sinatra song that goes on about how nice it is to go travelling etc. and I suppose that for many it is. But my life has been so peripatetic that it’s no longer anything that I much look forward to. But needs must when the devil drives and so tonight I am off to London to interview a client for a new book. London used to be a city I was very fond of, after all, I pretty much grew up there but somehow the charm has faded. Apart from anything else, I find it difficult to cope with the transport system that I once thought was the best in the world.

Take the buses. In my day there used to be a cheerful chappy or chappess standing on the rear platform who would not only tell you if their bus was heading in the direction you fancied but would also sell you a ticket and give you change if necessary. It was an admirable system and so clearly could not be allowed to continue. Now as I understand it, one has to buy your ticket from a machine before boarding. I say, as I understand, since I have never been in a position to try as I always only have £20 notes on me, this being the smallest denomination that seems to be of any use in town.

Then there’s the Underground. These used to have rows of automatic ticket machines from which you could select your destination, bung your money in and go. Now I have to know is my destination in A, B, C or D Zones? I don’t know and I really don’t care but it means that I have to go and stand in line at the booking office to get my ticket. I do get change though.

The good news is that the cabs still work. London cabbies are kept in line by the simple fact that it takes so long to gain their licence that only a complete idiot would do anything to jeopardise it. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before authority realises just how iniquitous this system is, depriving innocent Central Europeans and others, unmindful of the topography of Central London, of the chance to earn a living. No doubt “the knowledge” will soon be modified, making the ability to find the way in Transylvania or Islamabad, good enough to become a London cabbie. So far the government seem blind to this injustice.

So that’s my preferred option for travel in London. It is, of course, where the £20 note comes in handy.

I arrive by air from Poitiers. The airport here is just about my size – small. In the years BR – "Before Ryanair" as every French provincial airport now dates itself - Poitiers was an aero-club with a runway sporadically used for training by the l’Armée de l’Air. With the arrival of a daily service to Stansted, they immediately built a bar and restaurant, followed by a small terminal building. The French have a penchant for getting their priorities in order.

Ryanair, much maligned in my opinion by those who seem to forget just how little they have paid for their ticket (In my case here, less than the fare on Stansted Express (!) into London). The flight crews are highly professional and I speak as one who was, for many years, one of these super-annuated bus drivers, the aircraft are modern and clean and I’m not sure what passengers expect from the service. Obviously too much! They climb on board as though on a trans-atlantic flight, not one of less than an hour. Ryanair modelled themselves upon South West Airlines in the US, a first class outfit whose seating assignments are best described as being “ get on, sit down, shut up.” Their pragmatic approach is perhaps best described by the solution to a problem that arose. A small Mid-West operator threatened to sue, claiming that they had rights to the logo. Rather than going to court over matter, the president of South West challenged the president of the Mid West operator to an arm wrestling match. He lost – but he saved a fortune in legal costs.

And so tonight I arrive at Stansted and ride the totally misnamed Stansted Express into town. If, of course, it’s running. Last time I tried, they were digging up the line and so I was put on board a coach. Having paid in advance to ride the train, my protests that the bus fare was considerably cheaper were brushed aside.

As I said, London’s not what it used to be. Although I suppose nowhere is.

But anyway the cabs still work.

I’ll be back on Friday, RV (Ryanair Volonte) and normal service will be resumed.


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