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
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 gawker.com,
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.