Sunday, February 28, 2010

Travelling with the Easyjetset

The queues snaked out of the departure lounge and down the corridor. Everyone stood silently, staring up at a small computer screen. I glanced at it: Newcastle - Boarding. Quickening my step and clutching my Speedy Boarding card I sought out Gate 84.

This was my first test of the Newcastle-Stansted route. I travel to London at least once a week and enjoy the train journey, but over the last couple of months the rise in prices on the East Coast line has finally pushed me to try something new. A friend had told me she swore by the Easyjet experience. It turned out to be an appropriate verb.

The 7am flight from Newcastle had been precisely on time, and although the Stansted Express, coupled with the Victoria Line, doubled the length of the journey, I reached my first meeting at 9.45pm. That's precisely when the 6.30am train would have brought me there, but I was £50 richer. If the return trip worked as well, I might just make Izzy’s bedtime.

I stood with my fellow speedy boarders by the unmanned departure gate and checked the screen again: Boarding, most definitely. In fact, it proudly claimed everything was boarding: Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast. But none of the queues seemed to be moving. Maybe it’s a ploy, I thought, to get people there on time.

Suddenly the tannoy caught everyone’s attention: it was an Easyapology for a delay on the 5.15pm Belfast flight. One of the queues swayed and I heard Irish murmurs. It was already 7.15pm. I smiled smugly: we were on “Final Call”. Except noone was there to open the gate. I frowned. Was there another Newcastle queue?

I asked the man next to me where he was going and he said Edinburgh. So did another. A non-speedy lady turned white and protested: this queue was definitely for Newcastle. Scottish and Geordie voices began a debate. We looked in vain for an Easyjet uniform. There were no staff at all for nearly a thousand people crammed into the tiny lounge. We checked the screen again: both Edinburgh and Newcastle flights said Gate 84, but the Newcastle flight was now “Closing”.

Half an hour passed. I rang home: we were already late, but the computer denied it. “Ask an Easyjet person”, said Jo with her American logic. “Not so Easy”, I said grimly.

I was just saying goodnight to Izzy down the phone when our queue suddenly disintegrated. Edinburgh was now in Gate 85. In their hurry to form a new queue, the Edinburgh passengers collided with another group of Easyscots from a Glasgow flight that had also been switched. The Edinburgh line had only just reformed when the screen changed again, to Gate 81. It was like musical gates: lines of sheep crossed the room, sorrying their way past each other.

Finally it was our turn to move, but not in the way we expected. Without warning the screen declared “Newcastle: Estimated 9.15pm”. We were two hours late.

The chap standing next to me told me it happens frequently: the Geneva plane to Newcastle was late so all the regulars had known since lunchtime that this one would be delayed too. Shame they didn’t tell the Stansted flight information board. The chaos and lack of customer care reminded me of another internal airline service I’d experienced back in 1993. But that was in Romania, a third world country in those days, where you had to bribe someone to get on board. I wouldn't expect this sort of thing in a British airport in 2010.

1993 was also the year I was a guest at a small dinner party in a swish loft apartment overlooking the Thames. It was a 26th birthday celebration for a delightful, shy Greek Cypriot man who’d bought the apartment with money from his shipping owner father. He’d also bought himself a small shipping company, but he was most excited about another project.

“I’m going to start an airline”, he told us. His name was Stelios.

We all laughed at the absurdity: he had to be joking. No, he was deadly serious. And on Friday, the joke was on me.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Child Number Six?

Normally I write my blog in the peace of our quiet Sunday mornings: Izzy burbling and chortling to herself as she plays in her pen, Jo writing emails to distant Californians, the cat and the dogs snoozing together on the rug by the Aga.

Not today. Tiny feet race up and down stairs, and outside screams of laughter cut through the frosty air. Poncho is hiding under the sofa in despair. For this half term we’ve been inundated by a succession of friends from the South, all with large families. We have, quite literally, a houseful. And, apart from the cat, we all absolutely love it.

There’s nothing more reassuring than the sound of children laughing as they hide and seek in the garden. Last night, when the last game of charades was over and the maelstrom finally settled down for bed, Jo and I took a deep breath and said, almost simultaneously, how much happier our house felt when it was full and how empty it’s going to seem tomorrow.

Then we looked at each other and paused. Neither of us needed to articulate what we were both thinking. I finally broke the ice: did we really want Izzy to grow up an only child? Her four siblings live down South. Sam, who’s 12, comes up every holiday and she absolutely worships him: she sits with her big eyes staring up at him and copies everything he does. But by the time Izzy is at preschool Sam may have morphed into a sullen teenager, ignoring his little sister. Maybe by then she’ll need a little sister of her own.

It’s ludicrous, of course: Jo is still in her thirties, but I’m 58, and already have five children. Yet just 20 miles away, in Newcastle’s Life Centre, lie 6 frozen embryos, all conceived at the same moment as Izzy. Another baby is just a phone call away. Why don’t we just…?

It’s not as simple as that. On Saturday morning, walking with Jo and Izzy down our field to the swollen Wansbeck below, I had a strange moment of déjà vu. I was carried back 26 years to another field near my first wife’s home in Devon, with our son Ben on my back. I remembered my feeling of contentment with that perfect circle of husband, wife and child. Then I remembered the panic – that utterly irrational male sensation of helplessness – when my wife and I first discussed having another child.

There’s no doubt that the introduction of a second baby fundamentally changes the relationship between husband and wife. Is this why so many men get stressed at the very thought of it? Perhaps they feel threatened, fearing the perfect circle will be distorted by the presence of another human being. It's illogical, of course - my second child Rocca is absolutely the most wonderful daughter a father could want and I love her to death. However it's certainly true that a great proportion of marriages begin to feel the strain soon after the birth of the second child - perhaps those same male insecurities lead ultimately to a forlorn quest for reassurance and youth which so often manifests itself in relationships outside the marriage.

I certainly know that I’ve never been happier in my life than I am right now, and I want nothing to jeopardise this feeling. Don't misunderstand these observations: my relationship with Jo gets stronger every day. In fact, it's the very strength of our feelings right now which are making both of us feel we should just leave things as they are and grow our life together. Besides, as Jo says, nobody would invite us round if we had two kids: at the moment Izzy is a delight, even in company.

But maybe it’s out of our hands. After all, my life has taken some pretty weird twists of fate recently. Yet nothing has been entirely unexpected. Some time after my second child was born, I was invited to dinner by Tessa Dahl (Roald’s daughter and Sophie’s mother). She was a delightfully bonkers hostess, populating her soirees with eccentrics and oddities - I must have appeared so dull by comparison. I was seated opposite a celebrity clairvoyant – that is, a fortune-teller to the stars. Halfway through our starter she leaned forward, looked into my eyes and whispered “You’re going to end up marrying an American, you know”, adding conspiratorially: “And you’ll have six children.”

I dismissed her as a mad old woman. But now I’m wondering if she knew more than she should.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

How To Speak Cough

As I pulled up to the lights on my way to the train station, I noticed that the car in front of me was a Toyota. I wondered what it must be like to own a car that’s waiting for a safety recall. I imagined the driver nervously checking his accelerator pedal, trying to remember what the smiling lady in the Toyota video told him about slipping the gearstick into Neutral when his car goes hopelessly out of control (“That’s N for Neutral”, she purrs reassuringly).

All things considered, the Toyota driver seemed pretty relaxed as I pulled alongside. To think that just a month ago I’d nearly bought a Prius. As the lights changed I glided away in my new Mercedes. The feeling of superiority was short-lived. The car, scarcely out of its wrapping paper, was slowing down. I floored the non-stick accelerator pedal and the wretched machine promptly froze, right in the middle of a busy junction. It was rush hour, and on Radio Newcastle they were asking listeners to phone in traffic problems. As a chorus of irritated horns signaled the buildup of a pretty big one, I instead phoned the Mercedes recovery service, then the important client who was expecting me in London.

The first police patrol was very polite. They advised me to get out and stand at the side of the road. Apparently it was safer. It was certainly colder. My feet welded themselves to the icy pavement as I waited and watched the traffic get more irate. Then another police car pulled up. Apparently my tailback was stretching back to the A1. To any readers of this blog held up in Newcastle on Wednesday morning, I apologise. Then some more police on their way to unarmed combat training arrived; despite wearing shorts and trainers, they wrenched my car into neutral and manhandled it to the side.

The man from Mercedes took thirty seconds to analyse the problem. “You’ve run out of diesel”, he said. Which was nonsense: the fuel gauge showed one quarter full and the onboard computer said I had 120 miles left. It’s a problem with the coding, he said. Apparently the car, a C220 CDI, has two fuel tanks, and a computer pumps one into the other when it gets down to a certain level. Except mine didn’t, because of the coding. He said it was the third one this week. Sounds like another recall. That’s what the Mercedes service man said as I waited to have the thing repaired. A fault at the factory, it was. So will this affect all models? You’re not the first, is all he said. The coding cost me £250 in wasted train tickets.

Thank goodness humans don’t have recalls. Baby Izzy is already a one-year-old. I marvel at how everything works so perfectly as she grows into a little person. Mind you, yesterday I felt that irrational parental panic when Jo told me that a friend’s baby, who’s a week younger, is already walking and talking.

Izzy is still crawling and speaks Cough, a new language we invented together. She coughs; I cough back. She comes closer and coughs twice; I cough twice too. Then she brings her face right up to mine, till our noses almost touch. She takes in an enormous breath, turns bright red, then chokes out a loud, spluttery cough right into my eyes, before falling back in a fit of giggles. It’s our private game, and it’s better than any language I know.

Jo, quite rightly, wants her to unlearn it as soon as possible. Apparently it’s embarrassing in playgroup: maybe the other mothers think she has swine flu. But I want to enjoy every cough-game before she starts talking properly; before her perfectly written code begins to pump out the next phase of that miraculous, faultless transition from baby to child.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A news deal for the North

On Friday I spent the day pitching what I thought were some pretty revolutionary ideas for transforming the content of our local ITV news coverage. It’s a privilege to have been invited to join the consortium of The Journal’s owners and its partners Ten Alps and The Press Association in their bid to win the independently funded news consortium pilot for the North East. I’ve watched the local news here since the first day of Tyne Tees Television and, frankly, I don’t think much has changed in those fifty years. Now we have a chance to do something about it.

This experiment, to be paid for by an unspent part of the BBC licence fee (because what could be more relevant to public service broadcasting than improving our vitally important regional service?) is an opportunity to try out something completely new: England’s first local multi-media news.

There are three million licence payers in our region who currently receive not a single locally produced network programme, so it’s only fair that we should be given the best regional news service. And, as Sir John Hall correctly pointed out in a public meeting on Friday afternoon, over the years we’ve allowed ITV to strip us of virtually all our much-loved local programmes. Now, with the aid of a substantial newspaper resource and a layered multi-platform approach, we could begin to turn the tide.

But first we had to convince the panel, led by former Radio Authority chairman Richard Hooper. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting them: they are not only extremely experienced, but are clearly committed to giving our region something special.

Certainly it’s been a more pleasant experience putting this bid together than the last time I tried for a regional television franchise. That was back in the nineties, when I put my company Mentorn up against the might of Greg Dyke’s London Weekend Television.

We didn’t win, despite fielding a team that included film producers Working Title and media giant Polygram. Greg dubbed us the Groucho Bid, because we planned the whole thing in a tiny room in the London club, toiling for two months with little sleep to produce a document hundreds of pages long. Our final task, 24 hours before the deadline, was the most important: a compulsory 8-page summary, outlining all our plans. It was the first thing the judges would read.

With addled brains, surrounded by a phalanx of lawyers verifying every word, we set about the task. At 1am, one hour before our print deadline, I typed in the last sentence. Everyone in the room applauded and a junior lawyer offered to go and make us all a cup of tea. On his way out he squeezed past the line of chairs and tripped over the cable connected to my laptop. The plug came out; the screen went blank.

We watched frozen as the machine rebooted. Not one word of the summary had been saved. It had taken 24 hours to write and needed to be at the printers within the hour or we’d be disqualified. The young lawyer burst into tears.

In desperation I rang the MD of Polygram to tell him the grim news. He was at a post-premiere party – you could hear champagne corks popping in the background. But this is where, even through an alcoholic haze, the class of a top executive really shows.

“The rules say it must be exactly 8 pages and contain a summary of our entire bid, but does it specify how many words on each page?” “Er, not exactly.”

So, over the phone, he calmly dictated a list of bullet points, each to be typed in large print across the document. It took him just ten minutes to fill 8 pages – and he listed every key fact.

When he finished he wished me goodnight, adding, “This time please don’t forget to save it.”