You don’t have to love the budget airlines to find them useful for travelling in Europe. Since I belatedly discovered them I’ve become a habitué and fly to and from Italy several times a year. At first it was from Stansted to Rome Ciampino which receives Ryanair, easyJet and others, then Bristol which is closer. Recently Thomsonfly began cheap flights from our nearest airport, dear old Bournemouth International (as it grandly calls itself), to Pisa, and what an old-fashioned pleasure that is. The terminal is small and staffed by friendly people who’ve yet to become disillusioned by handling large numbers of travellers. The man checking our boarding passes actually wished us a good trip. I was so shocked by this courtesy that I forgot to buy The Spectator from the bookstall. The departure lounge was small and light, a simple Portakabin-type structure just yards from the aircraft. There was none of the bossiness and offhand rudeness you find at the wasps’ nests of our larger airports. Selfishly, we’re just hoping that the airline will one day fly to Perugia, our nearest airport in Italy. It’s odd that no airline goes there direct from Britain as it has two universities, one for foreigners (Iain Duncan Smith was there briefly) and is just down the road from Assisi, the haunt both of pilgrims and tourists.
Actually, it was while sitting at Ciampino in February reading the worthy but dull International Herald Tribune that I realised that ‘old Europe’, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s apt phrase, was doomed economically. I’d thought this for some time but when I read that the EU Commission had decided that airlines should pay compensation to passengers for certain delayed or cancelled flights I had to conclude that the Eurozone had had it. The overstaffed, subsidised national carriers such as Air France don’t care, but the budget airlines will have to pay compensation far exceeding the actual prices of their fares. My last two flights from Bournemouth were each £74 return for two people inclusive, a tremendous bargain. Passengers realise that they will have to pay higher fares as a result, which is why most are against the idea. It shows how utterly silly and ignorant the Eurocrats are about the nature of business.
Talking of economic narcolepsy, in England my nearest town is Shaftesbury in Dorset — Thomas Hardy’s Shaston, of course. It’s attractive in an unpretentious way and I’m very fond of it. Although it’s sharpened up a bit in some respects, it’s still quite unambitious at heart. I’ve long felt that Thatcherism whizzed down the A303 and missed this corner of north Dorset. A friend asked the owner of a small garage outside the town to fill up her large estate car with petrol. When he’d finished he said in a broad Dorset accent, ‘I haven’t filled it right up, it’ll cost a fortune.’ When she wanted to buy a plastic container for lawnmower fuel, he looked aghast and suggested she return home to bring her existing one as ‘these are a hell of a price’. She was allowed one after pretending that the container in her garage was punctured. A young mother trying to buy her daughter shoes for school last September saw them cordoned off in the shop like a police crime scene with the sign, ‘No school shoes available in the school holidays.’ She could only have them after her daughter had gone back to school. Yes, they definitely like the quiet life down here. Or have they got the life/work balance right? Tourists arrive on summer Sundays to gape at Gold Hill, the steep cobbled street where the Hovis commercials were shot, and to walk past the ruins of the 9th-century Benedictine abbey founded by King Alfred with its lovely views across the Blackmore Vale. They tend to find, though, that most of the shops where they might actually want to buy something are resolutely and triumphantly shut. I call it the curse of Shaftesbury and it can strike wherever I am in the world.
Summer for me is when the first Test match begins and I look forward to Test Match Special on Radio Four longwave or Channel 4’s innovative coverage. But this summer will be the last time for at least four years that I’ll be able to watch the cricket on television. In a remarkably short-sighted, greedy decision last year the England and Wales Cricket Board sold the rights to Sky and daily highlights to Channel Five, neither of which I receive or intend to install. Test cricket will be hidden from view for most people, and young cricket enthusiasts will be denied the chance to admire our best players. I thought something fishy was up when the government dropped Test cricket from the list of protected sports, thus allowing Rupert Murdoch eventually to snap it up. When I heard Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun’s political editor, solemnly declaring before the election that the paper would wait to see how the parties performed before declaring its support, I knew it would back Labour, which, of course, it did. It was Murdoch’s little thank-you for getting the Test match rights and various other favours — that’s how Blair’s government works.
Until this year my personal computer had Norton Internet Security to protect me from viruses and scams. When I tried to renew it I was told that because my operating system was still Windows 95 Norton would no longer offer protection. When I tell people this they raise their eyebrows and express their astonishment that I still use Windows 95, as if it were the equivalent of the quill pen. Why? It suits me. All I need is a word processor, email and internet access. It gives me that. Sadly, though, I am now being forced to upgrade. Without anti-virus protection I’ve been hit by scams, now a huge worldwide problem. Crooks abroad downloaded a premium-rate dialler into my computer without my knowing so that instead of dialling my internet server I was unwittingly dialling an 090 premium-rate line. When I had all 090 numbers blocked (BT charges for it) they downloaded a dialler that called an international number each time I went on-line, in this case the South Pacific island of Tuvalu, a computer centre, apparently. BT absolves itself of reponsibility; it cannot be bothered to tackle this problem or compensate those whose phone lines have been hijacked. It makes too much money from the genuine premium-rate companies. The premium-rate regulatory body ICSTIS is pretty useless as it acts after the event, by which time the money has gone.