My flight to Italy a couple of weeks back was held on the runway for a while because of some altercation back at the departure gate. After a while the pilot appeared at the front of the cabin and, full of self-righteous anger, explained that ‘two Italians’ had been rude to the gate staff. He would not be allowing them onto ‘his’ plane, he said, and then began to lecture the rest of us as to how he wouldn’t tolerate any form of rudeness on any of ‘his’ flights, certainly not to ‘his’ staff, it was something up with which he most certainly would not put, he barked, puffed up to the size of a small planet. Just get behind the joystick, or whatever it is, and head for Naples, you pompous glorified bus-driver, I expect most of us were thinking; certainly this is what flashed through my mind. Along with: why are you lecturing us? We weren’t rude to those half-wits. I had planned to be rude, as it happens, because I was still smarting from the usual rip-off over a normal-sized suitcase filled with normal stuff but which had been deemed too heavy, and I’d have to pay another forty quid. But as I came up to the desk the notion somehow deserted me and I just trudged through obediently, head down, minding my p’s and q’s, strapping myself into a seat seemingly designed for Karen Carpenter in her last weeks, and preparing for the usual barrage of instructions about what I could and couldn’t do.
I made a promise to myself last year that I would travel by plane much less frequently henceforth, so unpleasant has the experience become these days. It is encapsulated in that pilot’s tirade: MY flight, and you bastards always try to spoil it. Passengers as a loathsome impingement. But here I was again.
Why? I needed a small place, away from the world, to concentrate on writing for a couple of weeks. I really wanted to go to Middlesbrough, my old hometown, and work during the day and maybe go out for agreeable drinks with local friends at night. But remarkably, the cheapest apartment I could find anywhere in the Teesside area turned out to be exactly three times more expensive than a flat in Positano, on the Amalfi coast, that supposed haunt of the louche, the mega-rich, of playboys and the jet-set. Doesn’t that strike you as absurd? Admittedly, in the Boro I wouldn’t be distracted by exquisite architecture, or that astonishing vertiginous meeting of land and sea, or the profusion of cheap and excellent restaurants, or tempted outside by extremely clement weather. But hell, that was a sacrifice I felt I ought to make in the cause of economy.
And getting there? Three hundred or so miles to Middlesbrough and thirteen hundred to Positano? No contest: even with the excess baggage con it was still much cheaper to fly to Naples than get the train to Middlesbrough. Even for someone who hates flying and loves trains, and adores the north-east of England and has never been hugely convinced by southern Europe — this was a step too far. Why would anyone go there? Why would anyone take a break in Britain when it is so much, so much more expensive here?
I was mulling this over back in Britain when I chanced across an article by the former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, about how he was sick of his hard-earned dosh going to useless, indolent northerners. He seems intent on starting his own party, a sort of geographically reverse equivalent of the Liga Lombarda: southernparty.co.uk. He wants the North to ‘pay its way’ at long last, etc, start forking out money from their own pockets for tins of food for their whippets. Much as I like Kelvin, his article struck me as being little more than the whining of an over-remunerated spoiled brat. The taxes he carps about leave us in the South all a hell of a lot better off than the people living north of Derby, who struggle by on the minimum wage — and more usually sub-minimum wage, with restricted hours — which is the reward for 95 per cent of employment up there. His notion that they should all come down here and see what it’s like to pay large amounts of taxes struck me as fatuous and petulant. Our economy struggles along by paying northerners next to nothing to do economically vital work; it always has done. A bit of a subsidy seems a small price to pay; personally, I would double it, or triple it, if it meant greater investment in industry and skills in the north of the country. In any case, there already is a southernparty.co.uk, even if it has been negligent in claiming the domain name. It’s called the Conservative party.
But, still. I do wonder if the North — and the West, for that matter — is pricing itself out of one of the most potentially lucrative growth markets we have; tourism, with all its knock-on benefits. I wonder how many others have been put off visiting the place because of the weirdly astronomical cost? Holiday cottages and the like quote tariffs which could appeal only to the most well-heeled Kelvins of the South; they seem to bear no relation at all to the local economy. If you were a foreigner you would not choose to visit the North, because of the price, and if you are from the north of Britain you would far rather hop on a flight to somewhere warm. Even if the pilot is a sententious ass.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 December 2012