Airports are on my mind, since I’ve just stepped off an on-time early-morning flight from East Midlands to Bergerac – yes, Ryanair, efficient as ever. But what a relief not to be battling through Heathrow, where such anarchy has taken hold that the Civil Aviation Authority and Department for Transport have given chief executive John Holland-Kaye an ‘ultimatum’ to sort it out – after he capped passenger numbers at 100,000 a day, forcing innumerable flight cancellations. As the airport that used to be Britain’s gateway to the world becomes a global embarrassment, attention turns to the question of whether the man in charge should resign or be fired.
I had always assumed Holland-Kaye was no more than a flak-taking PR, but I see he takes credit for delivering the Terminal 2 refurb on budget in 2014 and has a background in housebuilding. As a highly paid hands-on boss rather than a mere spokesman, he deserves even more stick for misjudging the pace at which travel demand would recover while blaming everyone else for his domain’s mounting chaos.
But he also has to please private foreign shareholders led by the Spanish group Ferrovial and a bunch of sovereign wealth funds, while facing disruptive unions with no help from gone-tomorrow ministers. So I’m not demanding Holland-Kaye’s honourable resignation: let’s face it, that just isn’t a thing these days. And rather than instantly sacking him, Heathrow’s owners should send him out front, to spend August marshalling queues of furious travellers.
What price a grand memorial to yourself at Oxford University these days? A Vietnamese company called Sovico – big in aviation, banking and energy, we’re told – is paying £155 million to have the college that salutes the physician Thomas Linacre (1460-1524) renamed Thao College, in honour of Sovico’s chairwoman Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao. She’ll be joining a billionaire club that includes Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone investment group (£150 million for the Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities), the metal-trading Reuben brothers (£80 million for a new post-grad college with their name on it), Ukrainian-born Sir Len Blavatnik (£75 million for the Blavatnik School of Government) and Syrian–born Wafic Saïd (£23 million for the Saïd Business School).
The obvious risk in this naming race is that reputations become controversial as popular opinions change. Better to follow St Antony’s, the college of which I’m now a proud alum, whose name derives more subtly from its founding donor, the French-born Middle Eastern wheeler-dealer Antonin Besse (1877-1951). Photos of him recall the black-marketeer Signor Ferrari in Casablanca, and I’m sure he’d have done shrewd business across high table with today’s exotic big-bucks donors. They in turn might note that a touch of sanctity rather than vanity in the name of the college makes his benefaction forever holier than theirs.
The media’s heatstroke hysteria overlooked a sector for which this week’s weather was a gift: anyone staging outdoor entertainment, more usually associated in Britain with hypothermia and box-office disaster. My Yorkshire am-dram troupe has been performing ‘Helmsley’s Whole History’ in comic verse (by me) and songs (by Kate Fenton) to packed picnic audiences. The best gag involved an interruption by a Boris Johnson lookalike trying to reimpose Covid restrictions. ‘Enough!’ cried the town’s Victorian vicar, risen from the grave. ‘No more briefings grim or sinister / From this bad-boy ex-prime minister.’ Cheers echoed round the garden in the evening warmth.
I’m for Rishi Sunak, on grounds of character and economic literacy. I’m also very much in favour of a regime of smart and internationally competitive business taxes, less as a revenue generator (companies contribute only a small slice of the national tax bill), more as a catalyst for investment and productivity. But let’s leave that debate aside until we know who’s in charge — and focus on how Sunak can win final-round votes among his party’s middle-class faithful. The key, I suggest, lies in his 2020 ‘Eat out to help out’ slogan.
That discount gimmick hit hindsight criticism as a Covid spreader but made him popular at the time. He’ll surely boost his chances of victory now if he endorses my campaign for sub-£30 lunching options to fight the cost-of-living surge.
Readers’ suggestions so far include two-course offerings at Shambles in Teddington, Café St Honoré in Edinburgh, the Folly Inn at Towcester and St Jacques in St James’s Street. Three-course deals are scarcer, though the Oak Bistro in Cambridge, Blue Sardinia in Guildford and White Hart at Fyfield near Abingdon look promising.
A lesson of this search: beware cover charges and ‘optional’ service. The £17.25 three-course ‘prix-fixe’ at Brasserie Zédel off Piccadilly swiftly becomes £20.70. But I’ll happily invite Sunak, win or lose, to join me there for what’s still a West End bargain, so long as he’s happy with a starter of ‘dressed shredded carrots’.
How much is that doggy?
Enough gastronomy, back to economic indicators. Pets4Homes and other sources report falls of 40 per cent plus in the price of puppies, the lockdown longing for canine company that drove the benchmark cockapoo above £2,300 having given way to cost-of-living concerns. Normality is returning in terms of frequency of professionally bred litters, I read, while the number of would-be buyers per puppy has almost halved. I’m not sure what any of this says about the trajectory of inflation, but as my kennel correspondent succinctly sums up: ‘The arse has fallen out of our market.’
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