This just in; Princess kisses frog

The Swedish King’s daughter married Daniel Westling in Stockholm yesterday. Daniel’s a pretty normal sort of bloke and has a pretty normal sort of background; you’d describe him as a ‘commoner’ in this context. Crown Princess Victoria’s wedding was an eagerly-awaited occasion after an eight-year courtship that was formalised with the announcement of a wedding in February last year. Sveriges Television [SVT], the Swedish version of the BBC, provided an excellent live webcast so Mission Control was able to indulge herself in the events of the day, which started with interviews of middle-aged ladies on deckchairs in a sunny Nybroplan and finished with a fairytale waltz in the Drottningholm Palace. By that time, yours truly was fairytaled-out and seeking solace in a glass of J&B but I saw enough to have been pretty impressed with both the sensitivity and restraint that had been shown in what might be one of the last big royal weddings we see in the civilised world.

The wedding took place after an opinion poll in April when Swedes were asked if they saw merit in maintaining a constitutional monarchy. Well, the outcome was something of a goalless draw with about half wanting to keep it and half wanting a republic. Around 28% wanted it abolished altogether, which is of increasing significance in the long-term – if they can come up with a palatable alternative. Mind you, knowing Sweden as I do I’d need a clearer definition of what the Swedes perceive as a republic in a country where there is still a statute obliging you to report a neighbour to the authorities if you think he is living beyond his means. At the moment it’s a bit like Communism with Tesco. But the public interest and widespread enthusiasm made it clear that the Royals in Sweden still engender a fair amount of respect and a lot of affection; a reported throng of half-a-million turned up to cheer and wave the blue and yellow flags yesterday.

There was less respect shown by the Sunday Times this morning. Gracious enough to report the event they headlined the front-page picture with a caption describing the groom as a gym coach. This was supercilious and dismissive in the worst of English tradition as the guy has built personal training into a successful business and holds several board positions. King Carl XVI Gustaf, showing a great deal more perception and magnanimity than the sneering ST, made it clear in his wedding speech that his daughters’ happiness – Victoria’s sister is Madeleine – was paramount and that they should remain free to choose their life-partners without being burdened by the shackles of tradition and protocol. After all, look what that did for Prince Charles.

Sweden changed with the Constitution Act 1974 when it reduced the Monarch’s power to ‘rule the country alone’ and provided that ‘All public power in Sweden derives from the People’. The Swedish Republican Association wants rid of the monarchy altogether even though its diminishing power has been further eroded by virtue of having a popular and egalitarian female heir to the throne who is ‘normal’ and now married to a lowly gym coach. She’s much liked and respected for it and, through being less aloof and separate from the proletariat, moves Sweden further away from the governing structure that the Republicans find so distasteful.

As is so often the case, the interesting aspect is that a Princess has demonstrated that she has more vision and perspicacity than the Republicans who want to remove her. As they say on their forum ‘All state functions answers to democratic legislations’[sic], which sounds like good news for Sweden, the state-control of alcohol, maternity leave for men and, er, Tesco.

As for me, they seem a blissfully happy couple; I wish them a long, happy and healthy life with not too much trouble from the comrades.

Play up, play up and play the game

I started writing this with the World Cup well under way and England about to kick-off against Algeria in their second match. Even before agonising through the lacklustre performance, the disappointment of a worryingly inevitable goalless draw and Wayne Rooney’s sound bite bemoaning our booing fans I was feeling increasingly uncertain about it all. My dilemma is that as an Englishman I should be rooting for my country – all the flags of St George hanging from bedroom windows and adorning car roof trims implore me to – but in actuality, I don’t feel at all enthusiastic about supporting our team.

Now, to clear any misunderstanding flowing from that statement it’s not because I’m unpatriotic; I’m not and I like football. I played when I was younger and enjoy watching an exciting match. What I don’t like is the phenomenon that English football appears to have become; a circus populated by [with a few notable exceptions] inarticulate, overpaid, self-important individuals who equate money and celebrity with substance. I’m sort of wishing I was, well, Brazilian or Australian, maybe Dutch or from the States or even Mexico. I have real issues with the way the Dear Leader runs North Korea like a personal philosophy experiment but earlier in the week I found myself cheering his little guys [along with the Chinese rent-a-crowd] and was out of my seat when they scored. Point is, I desperately want to enjoy it and get swept away with it all but in England we seem to have forgotten that. No, try as I may I just can’t get worked-up over our sullen, pouting, aggressive and egotistical crew, encouraged as it is by tabloid hyperbole.

Truth be told, I’m a little shy of being in any way associated with it all. I heard one English fan interviewed on radio a few nights ago as he set off for the trip to Cape Town, the location for last evening’s event. He complained about the camping site, the food, the journey ahead of him and then advised the BBC arrogantly and with quiet venom, that if England didn’t beat Algeria he’d never go to watch them again. I can’t make sense of his motives for taking that sort of attitude or for his being there in the first place. Surely it’s supposed to be about representing England and supporting the team, isn’t it? Not all English fans were booing yesterday but our Wayne clearly didn’t feel that he had responsibility to anyone other than himself when he shared his less-than-deep thoughts with the camera and the world before finishing his rant with a trademark four-letter word.  

As far as I’m able to find out the refereeing fraternity hasn’t been given a special course on Slovenian profanities or been tutored on how to deal with abuse from Uruguayan players; those safeguards have been reserved specially for us. And I can’t recall any of the other teams being booed by their fans either. Most Nations seem to be pretty happy about their team having qualified for the finals and their travelling supporters, despite some disappointments, are doing just that – supporting. OK, Italy’s squad was booed by fans upset that the players had refused to stop and sign autographs when they arrived in South Africa but, for the most part, it’s ‘party on’ and the fans are enjoying the trip as well as the football. Why are we like we are? I just don’t get it.

Sir Henry John Newbolt, an English poet, wrote a poem in 1897 called Vitaï Lampada – the Torch of Life. Whilst it was more about playing cricket and going off to The Great War than the World Cup in South Africa it was very much about being English and the sentiments are still relevant. Our team and our fans would do well to reflect on the words I’ve repeated here before and after the game against Slovenia on Wednesday. By that time the fate of some of the other teams will be known and bags will be being packed. I suspect that a lot of people will be feeling proud of what their team achieved and will have enjoyed the contribution that they made as they think about leaving. It’s old-fashioned, I know, to be proud of your country and life in England these days often gets in the way of such sentimentality. Next Wednesday might be the last chance we get to make a contribution and I hope we do. I might feel a bit more like cheering for the Three Lions than I do today.

Vitaï Lampada

Sir Henry John Newbolt

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Reasons why I hate Ryanair

I’ve flown with Ryanair a lot. Some years ago I was near to being a commuter between England and Sweden and flying from Stansted to Sturup airport, near Malmö, was very convenient as well as being exceptionally cheap. So, when I booked flights well in advance, carried only an overnight bag and followed the rules for check-in, it was all pretty easy and frequently cheaper than commuting to the office in London. Admittedly, on occasion I had to sit next to a dreadlocked oik on his way to Christiania in Copenhagen but that is part and parcel of low-cost airlines.

I have to say, though, in all that time – I used Ryanair for years – I can’t recall a serious delay or a technical problem and they got me where they said they would near enough on time and in one piece. That’s all you can ask of an airline, isn’t it? Well, no, it’s not; funny as it may seem, most people want to be treated with respect and dignity.

We’d delayed and shortened our trip to Italy because of the ash-cloud problems so, in changing our flights, had to use Ryanair out of Treviso on the Saturday evening. It’s a late departure but it allows you a full day and we spent it in the ancient city of Padua, where we filled bags with asparagus, salami, prosciutto, bread, pasta and all sorts of culinary delights. Padua is the city where Galileo and Copernicus lectured, where Canova produced his first sculptures and where The Taming of the Shrew is based. There is a feeling of history in walking the arcaded streets between Prato della Vale, dominated by the Basilica di San Antonio and the markets nestling beneath the Pallazzo della Ragione, said to be the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe.

Treviso is also a pretty town of narrow streets and busy piazze, very much regional Italy and more than just a small airport. Benetton originates in Treviso and is based here but I suspect that they use their own plane. Being commoners, we had to queue on the stairs with about 300 other disgruntled customers. I don’t know why flying with Ryanair is always so uncomfortable. No matter what I do or how I prepare for it I end up frustrated, angry and vowing never to use them again so I’ve thought of the reasons why I just hate them.

Here they are;

One; Ryanair dislikes its passengers. As a business the airline is immensely successful and generates huge profits. Its website reports as I write that profits are up 204% and passenger numbers up 14% but we, the customer, appear to be an unfortunate inconvenience. They treat us with disdain and disrespect and a traveller receives little more attention – sometimes less – than a sack of potatoes. Employees are often rude, too.

Two; the website is a minefield. As a web-based airline you’d expect the website to be smooth, sophisticated and easy for non-technical customers to use. It’s not; the option to accept or reject insurance is still buried in a list of destinations so if you follow the prompt to indicate where you reside it adds insurance – up to £14 – to the cost. Another prompt asks you to click priority boarding after you’ve entered passenger details and that will add more costs. Worse, the site is completely unforgiving of changes or errors – even typing errors – and you have to pay dearly if you make the smallest mistake. This is compounded by your being urged to complete the online check-in because once you’ve done that you are committed and further changes are not possible. It can be very expensive to correct or change a booking and a cynical man would think it was set up with that in mind.

Three; cheap flights aren’t really cheap. This is an old chestnut and is still an issue. When you see a flight advertised for an incredibly low price you need to consider a few points. How many seats are on offer at discount cost? How much are booking fees, card fees, baggage fees, online check-in fees, insurance and so on in each direction? Costs are frequently low but definitely not every time and sometimes like-for-like is cheaper elsewhere.

Four; the baggage allowances are low. You get 30Kg of checked baggage but it has to go in two bags of 15Kg each – but you have to pay £50 for it. Hand baggage is limited to 10Kg in one carry-on that has to include everything including duty-free or airside purchases. In the final analysis working to the minimum or cheapest option is inconvenient and barely workable if you are staying away for more than a day and travel with a laptop and camera like I do. Ryanair knows that.

Five; I can’t understand what the cabin crew say. I have no issues, per se, with crew coming from former Eastern bloc countries or anywhere else for that matter but I expect to understand what they say to me. Ryanair continually staff their aircraft with a compliment of individuals that could have filled the rostrum in a 1960s athletics championship and I can’t understand their announcements or what their replies are when I ask them a question. If I can’t understand routine announcements then what will I understand in an emergency?

Six; the flight is regularly interrupted by announcements. We are advised in loud, broken and mostly unintelligible English that we can buy food, so-called ‘tax-free’ gifts and – of all things – scratch-cards in a constant attempt to prize further money out of us. Ok, I guess, if you love Pot Noodles and don’t want to read.

Seven; they won’t allocate seats. Even allocating seats in the order people check in would be better than the unseemly scramble up the steps. I’ve watched couples forced to sit apart and children separated from parents for no reason other than Ryanair not giving a toss.

Eight; the seats are hard, they don’t recline and there are no pockets in front of you. Most flights are less than two hours so having hard seats is bearable – just – but I hate not having somewhere to put my book, a magazine, fruit or water and some of the other bits and pieces that one surrounds oneself with on a flight. Remember, you are not allowed to carry it on separately so it means unpacking your carry-on once you’re at your seat and spreading stuff across your lap.

Nine; customer service at airports is virtually non-existent. Actually, it’s non-existent anywhere. At Stansted I was once near the front of a queue for a flight when Ryanair changed the gate without an announcement. If you arrive at the gate late they just stop you boarding even if it’s their fault. At Pisa a flight to Stansted left thirty minutes early, for Heaven’s sake, costing me a tank of petrol in the rental car I didn’t have time to refill. Last week at Treviso a group of elderly folk who had been on a pilgrimage had to sit on an airless staircase for nearly an hour while we waited for Ryanair to let us board.

Ten; Michael O’Leary’s supercilious arrogance. Accepted that he is good at what he does and Ryanair’s success bears testimony to that but his arrogant trumpeting and lack of humility gets under my skin. In a society where money equals power he gets far more credibility than I can stomach.

By the way – the flight from Treviso was smooth and landed just ahead of schedule, as I think Olga or Svetlana or whatever her name was probably said in her incomprehensible announcement.

There’s a good website that addresses all these issues more comprehensively than I have interest in doing and if you love to hate Ryanair it will pass a half-hour when you have nothing better to do. Click here if you’re interested.

Really, they are a complete shower. A pox on them.