In Transports of Horror and Delight

In Transports of Horror and Delight

On airports Heathrow and De Gaulle, bicycles and trains.



It’s most definitely not worth flying into Heathrow anymore. It always was a grim place, the trip thither or thence enhanced–this was many years ago–only by the beautiful Deco Firestone factory on the north side of the road. Then some swine bought the Firestone building and knocked it down overnight before the preservationists could muster and resist. The crawl down the A4 now lacks all allure, and the airport itself gets progressively uglier as the years roll by. In recent years the “war on terror” was blended in with innate British petty-minded obstructionism, culminating in the “one-bag rule,” which has now entered the history books as a classic illustration of the incidental consequences of political ambition.

In August 2006 British Home Secretary John Reid, an ex-Communist Scottish bully of low mental caliber, disclosed a plot by Islamo-fascist chemists (homebrew division) to take liquids onto planes, blend them in the lavatory and then consign all on board to a fiery doom. The British press praised Reid’s fearless mien and expressions of resolve to battle Terror whatever the cost, and he was touted as a possible successor to Tony Blair. Reid decided to keep his name on the front pages by banning all carry-on bags at Heathrow, thus instantly paralyzing the busiest airport in Europe.

After a while the rule was somewhat relaxed. Transit passengers were told that they were allowed to carry one bag, roughly the size of a laptop case, through Heathrow. So the walk-in closets that passengers routinely drag onto planes had to be loaded into the belly of the plane along with the pet cages and stowaways at point of origin, and Heathrow remained paralyzed.

Landing at De Gaulle airport north of Paris, though, is pleasant. You take a commuter train to the center of town, and then the Métro, in my case to the Arts et Métiers station in the Marais, from where I trundled my bag to the Rue du Temple, handy for the Jewish Museum, the rehabbed Musée de la Chasse, several score small jewelry manufactories now run by the Chinese and the National Archives. There were a couple of Velib’ stands along the street, where you can rent a bicycle with a credit card, peddle around and lock it back in a stall at any other stand in Paris, assuming there’s an empty one available. These are nice bikes: not complicated by the eighteen gears that now destroy all pleasure on bikes in the States, but the traditional three. The saddle is not the odious knife edge but a comfortable pad. The bell works and so do the lights fore and aft. On some there is even a basket.

There are some 180,000 Velib’s available in Paris, and transport strikes lately mean they have been in constant demand. Indeed, some Parisians are creeping down in the late evening and putting their own private chains on Velib’s to be sure of having one available in the morning, thus privatizing a public asset. Why the strikes? President Sarkozy is set on destroying the French social welfare system, starting with the years you have to work to get a full pension, an increasingly unfamiliar concept to most in America, enjoying as they do lives of entrepreneurial vigor uncompromised by effete notions of enjoyment and ease in the sunset years.

If Sarkozy fails, then the French Socialist Party stands ready to take up the task of liberating the French from their pleasant lives. The leaders of this party are all reading Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest bestselling package of nonsense, Ce grand cadavre à la renverse (literally, “this big corpse lying on its back”), in which the silk-shirted millionaire (big bundle inherited from timber baron dad) says (a) the left is incurably anti-Semitic and (b) should stop being left, thus presumably purging itself of anti-Semitism in the cleansing medium of capitalist greed. After all, anti-Semitism is, as August Bebel said, the socialism of fools. Why not go the whole hog and give up both? Serge Halimi, who has a savage review of the book in the November issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, of which he is one of the chief editors, tells me that BHL’s counsels are being taken extremely seriously by the Socialist Party’s elites.

Foul of purpose though he may be, Sarkozy has something lively about him. It’s the same as with that other son of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have the inestimable talent of not being doleful. They enjoy being politicians and communicate this pleasure in a way that makes people sit up and pay attention. Sarkozy should recall that Austria-Hungary introduced, in 1854, the first compulsory social insurance law for miners, covering those beleaguered by sickness, old age or spousal loss. The system was expanded to the general population and again made compulsory in 1887, and Bismarck denounced it as socialism.

I headed for London for the weekend, and as the flat plains of northern France flashed by the train window I read Perry Anderson’s 13,000-word judgment in The London Review of Books on the political and economic career of the European Union. There was a time, many years ago, when some–I was among them–argued for Britain to join the EU on the grounds that it might be the catalyst for radical transformation of sclerotic Albion. Others held that in the not-so-long run the EU would submit all Europeans to the diktats of bankers and bureaucrats, extirpating democracy along with sovereignty. The latter view, Anderson conclusively demonstrates, was the correct assessment.

Sobered by Anderson’s savage reprise on Europe’s complicity in the renditions and kidnappings demanded by the American empire, I stepped from the train in Waterloo and headed into the Battle of Ideas, among them, “Recycling is a waste of time.” Just saying that in public these days can get you into a lot of trouble, as I will relate in my next dispatch.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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