It’s been a while (over six years, to be precise), but I think I’ve been living

in New York for long enough now that I can finally weigh in on the subject of

Britain in general, and London in particular, with the objectivity and omniscience

that only an occasional visitor to the country can ever have. Live somewhere,

and the particular will always overwhelm the general: I can parse the difference

between the Lower East Side and Nolita till the cows come home, but don’t bother

asking me what New York is like in general. A bit like my

sister, really, who is far too polite to people whose first question, upon

learning that she’s just returned from Antarctica, is "what’s it like?".

Anyway, Britain. First things first, the national airline. After my

experience with American Airlines a few weeks ago, British Airways was a

joy to fly. It’s not that things don’t go wrong; it’s that there are human beings

working for the company who care when they do.

My flight to London, for instance, took off more or less on time, but was held

up dreadfully upon arrival at Heathrow. First of all we were forced to be towed

to the gate (don’t ask me why); then the little "finger" thing which

connects the gate to the plane wasn’t working; and to make matters worse, some

useless chap in New York had put me in the very last row of seats, telling me

I’d have more legroom there. (Nope.) Off the plane, there were huge queues of

people waiting to get in to Terminal 1 – just when you thought you’d finally

made it, you turned a corner and another queue revealed itself. And all the

way through, the Heathrow staff displayed an Olympian detachment with regard

to anybody with a connection to make. Upshot: I completely missed my flight

to Milan.

Now this is where things start getting interesting. Just as with my flight

to Buenos Aires, this trip, to Italy, suffered from problems both within and

– as the Scots would say – outwith the airline’s control. (BA could

have realised I had a tight connection and given me a seat nearer the front;

they also could have hastened my transfer from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4. But

there’s still a good chance I would have missed my flight anyway, due to BAA

– the operator of Heathrow – and their faulty finger.) The huge

difference between BA and AA became apparent not in terms of their ability to

make mistakes, but rather in their desire to make amends.

AA is ever and always loathe to admit that anything is ever their fault, and

is very quick to say that if something isn’t their fault, then there’s nothing

they can do about it. Even when something is clearly their fault, AA

will generally be as cheap and unhelpful as possible: they make mistakes, and

the travelling public suffers.

BA, on the other hand, seems to (imagine this!) feel some responsibility for

the travelling experience of its passengers, and tries to make things up to

them if (as will inevitably happen, on occasion) their journey goes awry. The

friendly woman at the connections desk was faced with something of a perfect

storm when I arrived: they’d just installed a new computer system she hadn’t

come close to mastering; the next flight to Milan was not only on a different

airline but also went to a different airport; I was on an e-ticket which needed

to be converted to paper before anything else could be done, in a highly laborious

process which no one really understood; and the flight she was trying to get

me onto was, officially, full, despite the protestations of the Al Italia girl

on the other side of the hall, who was adamant that there were 19 free seats

and that I was more than welcome to any one of them.

An AA employee wouldn’t even have found the Al Italia flight in the first place

(since it was going to a different airport). If they had, they would have seen

that it was full and left it at that: they wouldn’t have walked over to the

Al Italia desk to double-check. And then, when things started going rather pear-shaped

with the computer system, they would simply have told me that there wasn’t enough

time to get me onto the earlier flight, and that I was going to have to wait

another six hours for the next one.

None of that happened with BA. I wouldn’t say that the connections staff were

highly expert and competent, but they had something more important than technical

expertise: they had friendliness and a desire and willingness to help. It wasn’t

their fault I’d missed my flight, but they were going to try their hardest to

get me to Milan as expeditiously as they could anyhow.

I made that Al Italia flight, in the end (although my luggage didn’t). But

that wasn’t the end of the story. A week or so later, I was flying back to New

York, and checked in at Paddington. (That’s one significant advantage that BA

has over Virgin. It’s not just that the queues at Paddington are nonexistent,

especially compared to the endless lines at Heathrow. It’s also the simple convenience

of not having to schlep your luggage all the way out to the airport, and thence

to the check-in lines. Why can’t Virgin get a slot at Paddington?) The woman

at check-in was very friendly, and gave me the perfect seat: at the front of

the plane, in an exit aisle, loads of leg room, no one sitting next to me –

and an upgrade to World Traveller Plus, BA’s answer to Premium Economy.

Now, I still like Virgin. Their entertainment system is better: when my iPod

ran out of juice, none of BA’s radio stations were bearable; BA’s choice of

movies is not nearly as imaginative is Virgin’s, the screens on BA are worse,

and the few systems which do offer games don’t offer games: they’re always "currently

unavailable". Virgin’s general attitude is Soho to BA’s Upper East Side,

and I can’t imagine keeping a BA souvenir in the same way that I keep Virgin’s

air socks with eyes sewn on or their incredibly useful drawstring plastic bags,

which I use to keep my laptop in when I’m travelling.

But if Virgin beats out BA by a nose, BA beats out American by much more. American

has the legroom, of course, which is wonderful, but they niggle all that goodwill

out of you and more: whoever heard of charging for wine with the meal on an

11-hour flight to South America? On AA, the passenger’s relationship with the

airline is largely antagonistic, whereas with the British airlines you’re much

more in it together.

One could say the same thing about the two countries’ attitude to soldiering,

judging by the progress of the war thus far. The Americans seem to be good at

blowing things up, but very bad at getting any kind of dialogue going with the

Iraqis, let alone any goodwill. The Brits, on the other hand, seem to understand

that Iraqis aren’t simply going to welcome them with flowers and open arms:

that they have to do something to earn the locals’ trust, and that hiding behind

a tank turret is a bad way of going about that. The Brits are just as good at

killing the enemy as the Americans are, but they’re much better at relating

with the vast majority of the population that isn’t the enemy.

On the other hand, Britain is becoming increasingly like America, and I have

a feeling that distinctions between the two countries are going to become nicer

and nicer over the coming years. I picked up the latest issue of The Face to

read on the plane (the one with Justin Timberlake on the cover) and it was not

only bland enough to be an American magazine, it even hyped,

finding a throwaway line about "Condé Nastiness" particularly


Even on the little things, London and New York are following each others’ leads:

after London switched from seven-digit dialling to eight-digit dialling, New

York had to go and do it one better by switching from seven-digit to eleven-digit


Much more depressing, I discovered that Milk & Honey, the cooler-than-thou

appointment-only cocktail bar on New York’s Lower East Side which was well past

its sell-by date two years ago, has opened up a London branch. London’s Milk

& Honey, of course, is a private member’s club: it costs £300 just

to get in the front door, before you’ve bought a single mojito. London’s full

of these places, largely because if you’re not a member of one it’s an absolute

nightmare trying to find somewhere to have a drink after midnight. But Soho

House, one of the most successful, is now moving

to the meatpacking district of New York, giving out free memberships to the

likes of Graydon Carter in an attempt to attract the wealthy and beautiful.

Graydon Carter?!?! He’d be eligible for a bus pass in London.

Here’s a quiz for you. It’s 2:30am on a Wednesday night, and you’re in a high-design

bar somewhere south of 23rd Street. You look to your left and you realise that

the expensively-coiffed gentleman holding court at the table next to you is

Graydon Carter. Do you (a) think to yourself "I’ve made it!" while

ordering an expensive cigar in self-congratulation; or do you (b) realise that

you’re not half as cool as you thought you were, and resolve forthwith never

to return? Answers on the back of a cheque marking the amortization payment

on $40 million of meatpacking-district construction activity, please.

Fact is, members’ clubs won’t work in New York because there’s a free alternative.

People might fight to get in to a swanky club, but they know they’ll be fighting

to get into somewhere else

next week: if you join a member’s club, you end up having to go there a great

deal just to make your membership fee worthwhile. And I don’t think that people

will dress down in New York the way they do in London: part of the attraction

of London clubs, I think, is that you can get in, if you’re a member, no matter

what you’re wearing. New Yorkers don’t think like that: if they’re going somewhere

fabulous, they’ll dress up for it, whether they have to or not.

But London and New York are not (or not only) moving together by adopting each

other’s worst and snobbiest characteristics. There are brighter spots too. My

friend Christabel, for instance, has opened up a truly fabulous art space in

London’s East End, called Hotel. Its inaugural exhibition shows a beautiful

neon piece by Peter Saville, and the whole project is very New

New York indeed: effortlessly superior to much more high-profile

exhibitions, at a fraction of the expense.

And if Mayor Bloomberg carries through on his proposal to slap tolls on all

bridges into Manhattan, maybe New York might become a bit more like London in

the wake of the introduction of the congestion charge. I couldn’t believe it

when I was there this time: traffic is flowing smoothly, and central London

is much, much more pleasant. What’s more, the tube and the buses didn’t seem

to be noticeably more crowded, despite the fact that the Central Line was closed.

Cars take up a huge amount of space for a very small amount of people: if those

passengers transfer to public transportation, it would seem, the effect is a

large improvement for all concerned.

Once Bloomberg has sorted congestion in Manhattan, all that remains will be

JFK. Seated right at the front of the plane, I was sure that, for once, I would

get through immigration before my luggage arrived. No chance: the INS computers

went down just as two jumbos were arriving, one from Hong Kong and the other

from London. Eight hundred people went nowhere for the best part of an hour.

Now that’s something you really can’t blame the airlines for.

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One Response to Britain

  1. Rhian says:

    Incase anyone does want to know what Antarctica was like, Chris Stewart and I chatted while I was there (officially for his radio show)and has saved the recording at:

    So now you can read the blogs AND listen to the show..I’m working on the t-shirts.


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