If British Airways (BA) and the United Kingdom Border Agency define Britain, the European Union (EU) will be well rid of the country. Few of the other 27 member nations can match the inefficiency and callousness of these two British institutions.
It hurts for a lifelong anglophile to have to level such charges at a country that still boasts pools of unmatched excellence. The British Library is a treasure trove of knowledge, its dedicated staff god's gift to researchers. Money alone cannot buy the luxurious comfort of gentlemen's clubs around St James'. The West End theatre, exhibitions at the V&A and National Gallery, Tate Modern's bizarre charm, even Trafalgar Square throbbing with protest, make London, where 200 languages are spoken, unique. Beyond London lies the warmth of the English provinces.
One probable reason why I feel so comfortable here is that Britain's infrastructure creaks as in India. Heathrow's baggage handling system ran amok last week. When a long-distance train was diverted in the Midlands, the station official blamed privatisation. The trains belong to one company, he grumbled, stations to another. The underground has become notoriously unreliable. London buses give no explanation for suddenly ending journeys long before the official destination.
"This is a nightmare," muttered the man next to me when our bus bound for King's Cross decided to stop at Tottenham Court Road. He wanted a transfer to continue by underground but had to wait until the bus journey actually ended. "Nightmare," he muttered again because the enormous glass walls of the smart new Routemaster bus allowed no ventilation and heated up like a furnace in the sizzling summer.
There was a mad scramble at Heathrow's Terminal 5 last Sunday when thousands of BA passengers couldn't check in. One irate passenger compared it to "a Third World domestic airport". BA pleaded it was upgrading its systems. "What are you upgrading to -Windows 2.1," was the sarcastic query by a popular TV presenter, Philip Schofield, who missed his flight. "Not one single member of staff to talk to @ BA," he complained on Twitter.
I suffered a similar trauma the previous week. Flying BA to Paris, the plane was about three hours late in taking off from London. The pilot mentioned the few minutes of light drizzle by way of explanation but that didn't prevent any other aircraft from taking off. In any case, the check-in counter had already warned me of some mechanical defect in the plane. Poor maintenance is a recurring theme with BA. I didn't worry too much because it was daylight and Deep, my son, was waiting at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
It was far worse returning to London three days later. We were supposed to take off from Paris at 9 pm. We boarded the plane, but the pilot announced after an agonising wait that the computers weren't speaking to each other. Obviously, BA makes up in wit what it lacks in efficiency, integrity and sound maintenance. We were herded out after some time, but Paris isn't Singapore or Dubai where passengers can relax in comfort. We sat in upright chairs until after midnight when the flight did take off finally. I missed France's foreign minister calling his new British counterpart a liar.
You would expect BA to serve a bit of dinner to passengers, who had been hanging about the airport for five or six hours. Nothing doing. The cost and courtesy would both have been beyond the airline's competence. Worse lay ahead. It was well past midnight when we reached London. Customs had closed. Buses and trains had gone to sleep. There wasn't any form of public transport in sight. I had to hire a taxi from Heathrow to Earl's Court at a huge expense. "We used to provide transport," an airline official explained, "but EU rules don't allow it." I wonder what excuse BA will trot out when that crutch goes.
Border Agency added the insult of dumb insolence and verbal impertinence to the injury of that ordeal. Some British immigration officers hark back to the age when they marched chanting, "Six, seven, eight,/We shall not integrate!" in protest against Commonwealth immigration. They may not be a majority but their sour surliness can make arrival in Britain an unpleasant experience.
After recent travels in Portugal, Spain, France and Norway, I must reluctantly admit that airlines, airports and immigration behave far more responsibly in continental Europe. Sad end of a dream though it is, there is no reason why Britain's appalling services should drag down the EU's record.