Picture of mailbox

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Another “Bright Side” to visit (highly recommended):

The joys of English country life:

The great Charles M. Schulz:

The funny side of the news:

The funny side of human evolution in action:

The definitive guide to the hi-tech workplace:

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Picture of a cross owl

The Bright Side

I'm depressed. In fact, you could say that my sense of humour has gone AWOL.

According to the news, the world is full of people who hate each other, politicians with unforgivable human weaknesses, scandalous celebrities, crooked and/or environment-destroying companies, and all kinds of drop-outs and weirdos.

If all this gets you down in the same way as it does me, why not turn off the TV, put the newspaper down, and follow a few suggestions as listed below?

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The world is a beautiful and fun place - enjoy it!

That's partly what this web site is all about...

For example, why not explore some of the links in the Places To Enjoy Life pages?

One of nicest experiences we had in Italy (out of many) was to share a community event on the shores of Lake Maggiore. You can read about it here.

You are also very welcome to visit my Categorian Blog, which is a mainly pictorial collection of posts that tries to celebrate what is beautiful and positive in the world - and which will point you at much more of the same to explore.

And just to show what a difference a sunny smile can make...

Picture of Debbie Harry

This is one of my favourite pictures of Debbie Harry (the source for which you will find here).

One of my favourite songs of hers is Brite Side, which seems appropriate, somehow!

Click the picture to listen to a video of Debbie singing it - the video will open in a separate window, so you can come back here and carry on while listening, if you want to.

Sunny smiles (and sunny places) feature among my Categorian posts that I tag with the keyword life-values - one way or another these posts remind me of things that make life worth living!

Picture of Snoopy and Charlie Brown

My Categorian Blog also has a good sprinkling of cartoons, hilarious videos, suggestions for seeing the brighter (and perhaps better) side of life, and other fun stuff.

They range from a selection of classic Peanuts cartoons to the story of the Corsican Cats, from "Oktapodi", a hilarious animation of the trials of true love, to the Miss Russian Army beauty contest.

You'll find what I think are the best of these if you go here.

You'll also find some fun links in the right hand panel of this page.


Picture of tree and mountain
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann (an attorney from Indiana)

Thanks for the picture (author unknown) and for the prose poem (a long-time favourite in our family) to my StumbleUpon friends Fredzepp (Mark) and Janine Flynn, respectively - sadly I no longer have links for these good people.

(If you like this poem, you will find more inspiring poetry from a diverse range of cultural and poetic traditions here.)

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Read some good news, for a change

Picture of Obama and his wife on parade

On November 20th, 2008, it seemed that America was reborn.

The world will (I hope) always remember the speeches by both Barack Obama and John McCain on election victory night, and the wonderful events of Inauguration Day, January 20th 2009 (some great pictures of which will be found here).

From the outside it feels to me like a grey cloud has been lifted from the American people and from the rest of the world. Nobody, least of all the new President, is promising an easy passage, but we finally seem to have a country where everyone can get on board and work together.

The "grey cloud" had many aspects to it, but the lifting of two of them in particular seems very important to me:

One has to do with the previous Administration's attitude to the environment. You will find plenty to do with the new approach, along with many other positive developments, on my Environment & Technology page.

The other has to do with the unintelligent (and dangerous) rejection of science by certain forms of religion in the USA. Until quite recently I had not appreciated how far, and into what high places, this rejection had spread. If you are interested, you will find my thoughts about this (and links to some interesting and intelligent approaches to science by other forms of religion) here.

Now, at last, things can start to be different. Congratulations, America... you did good!

  • Update, 2017...
  • Life is not always bright, is it... A great opportunity for the USA was largely (but by no means completely) wasted, and a great darkness has replaced it.
  • It may help to remember that only 25% of the electorate voted for Trump, and that there is vigorous opposition to him and his works, both within the USA and elsewhere.
  • Should you wish to, you can follow my own efforts here on my Categorian blog.

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Meet people who spread a little happiness...

Here are a few of my favourite people in the "joie de vivre" department.

From San Francisco:

Avatar of expressioniste

This is one of the avatars of my Categorian friend expressioniste (Aline).

If I had to choose just one phrase to sum up Aline's pages, it would be the "joie de vivre" which she kindly spreads to all of us. Whether it's her love of all things French, or beautiful fashion, or sunny pictures, or her delight in good food, or any of a hundred other things, I always (reluctantly) come away from her pages feeling much happier about life than when I arrived.

And if I had to choose just one picture from her blog to convey the flavour of Aline's wonderful pages (an impossible task) then this still from Albert Lamorisse's 1965 classic Le Ballon Rouge might be it.

Picture of boy with balloons

(Click the picture to see my Categorian post on Aline, from which you can also watch the whole 32-minute movie.)

  • 29th May 2013:
  • Sadly (from our point of view) Aline has withdrawn from blogging now, but I featured her many times on my own blog, and if you click her links above you will still see some of her delightful output.

From Athens:

My StumbleUpon friend Eftychia greets her visitors with this:

Good Morning, Good Evening, Good Night, Kalimera, Kalispera, Kalinichta to all of you around the world!
"Happiness comes of the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy, to think freely, to risk life, to be needed. - Storm Jameson"

On her pages you will find beauty in all kinds of forms - nature, art, music, children's illustrations and more - and all with a very nice feel to it.

Click the picture to visit her delightful pages.

From North Carolina:

Avatar of artistrybysandy

This is my friend Sandy.

Like many people who spread "joie de vivre" to others (and like many of the rest of us, too), some things in Sandy's life are far from being a joy - she is a long term sufferer from rheumatoid arthritis.

Sandy's way of responding to this chronic disorder is typically positive and helpful to others: she publishes a great blog called Rheumatoid Arthritis Support - Coping With Rheumatoid Arthritis and Auto-Immune Disease.

Sandy is also a "hero of the environment". With her son Ty Downing, she has created Green Eco Voice, a web site that promotes green values in general, and the development of eco-communities in particular, like the Serenbe Green Community in Georgia shown below.

Picture of Serenbe eco-community

Click the picture above for my Categorian post on Sandy's environment work.

Finally, I happen to know that Sandy enjoys a glass of healthy red wine, and would relate very much to the activity shown below. Cheers, Sandy!

Picture of my American cousins

My American cousins in Florida, enjoying life in the Italian spirit!

From all over the world (even French Canada... just kidding, Gwen):

Gold Award symbol

There are some people posting on Categorian whom I think of as Gold Stumblers. Their blogs are always interesting and often beautiful, and reading them definitely adds to your own quality of life.

I have introduced a few of them to you above. Sadly, I don't have space for them all here - but click on the gold-cup symbol for many more introductions!

From Seattle:

Picture of Tina Su

This is Tina Su, whom I encountered through the great help that she provided to one of my daughters.

Tina's mission is simple: to spread her positive outlook on life to others.

Tina publishes a very popular (and well organized) blog that currently has topics tagged with clarity, communication, creativity, environment, finance, green, happiness, health, motivation, productivity and relationships. You can find the latest list of categories here.

For an excellent flavour of Tina, read Overcome Fear In The Economic Crisis.

You can also find Tina here on StumbleUpon - a visit well worth making!

From Norfolk, England:

Picture of Stewart White

This is Stewart White, who presents the regional news programme BBC Look East with co-presenter Susie Fowler-Watt.

I am not a fan, to put it mildly, of most of the news media, who would rather tell you about a train wreck on the other side of the world than something good happening closer to home.

BBC Look East is a shining exception, due in no small part to the personalities of Stewart and his colleagues.

Whereas many TV presenters are what I think of as "plastic people" (the BBC is better than most in this respect), Stewart and his colleagues are fully-paid-up members of the human race.

After listening (or rather, not listening) to unremitting doom and gloom on the national news, it is always a pleasure to watch this great regional programme. Even on days when many bad things are happening, you can always find some good news here (if you watch the whole programme, not just the clips).

It is perhaps significant that the positive and cheerful tone of the programme, which I suspect owes much to its main presenters, does not really come across on the programme's web site.

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...including some of my favourite comedians

This is a short list of some of my favourites. What they all have in common (apart from brightening up other people's lives) is that they don't make fun of other people, or if they do then it is not malicious. If you have favourites of your own that you would like to share, I would love to hear from you!

Picture of Bob HopeBob Hope
One of the true greats, who cheered up the lives of so many people, often when they really needed it.
My favourite Bob Hope films (out of many) are probably Son Of Paleface and The Cat And The Canary.
My favourite Bob Hope gags?
A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don't need it.
Bigamy is the only crime where two rites make a wrong.
I do benefits for all religions - I'd hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.
Lots more here!

Picture of Bob NewhardBob Newhart
His monologues have creased me up so many times:
Introducing Tobacco To Civilization...

The Cruise of the USS Codfish...

The Driving Instructor...

and many more - it still makes me laugh just thinking about them!

Ronnie Barker
Picture of Ronnie BarkerOne of England's best loved comedians, Ronnie Barker was also a superb actor. His creation of Norman Stanley Fletcher, the old lag doing Porridge in prison, was a work of genius, and will probably still being re-run on TV (or whatever) a century from now.
Of all the hilarious sketches he did with his partner Ronnie Corbett, it is probably the "Fork Handles" sketch that I still think of. If you have never seen this classic, there is no time like the present...

Picture of Meg ryanMeg Ryan
Her performance in French Kiss (one of my favourite comedies) showed her as a truly gifted comedienne. Each time I watch that movie I enjoy the wonderful range of comic expressions that transform her face.
It's hard to pick a favourite scene from the movie, but I might go for the one at the reception of the George V hotel, where she rediscovers exactly why she hates the French (and vice versa). Of course, by the end of the movie she has a different view...

Picture of Lucille BallI never got to watch Lucille Ball (no TV at the time) but from the clips I have seen I think these two ladies must be somewhat in the same league!
Thankfully, there are lots of videos of Lucille Ball online - for example, see here.
It isn't hard to see why she is probably the best-loved comedienne of all time.

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Will we ever learn?

Thanks to my friend David for this one!

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Do something positive: "Pay It Forward"

I first encountered the philosophy of "Pay It Forward", without knowing it, when reading a book written in 1951 by one of my favourite science fiction authors, Robert A. Heinlein:

The banker reached into the folds of his gown, pulled out a single credit note. "But eat first — a full belly steadies the judgment. Do me the honor of accepting this as our welcome to the newcomer."
His pride said no; his stomach said YES! Don took it and said, "Uh, thanks! That's awfully kind of you. I'll pay it back, first chance."
"Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it."
— from "Between Planets"

It turns out that this philosophy goes back to Benjamin Franklin in 1784, and maybe much further back than that. Today it seems to be gaining ground in all kinds of ways, which is a wonderful thing.

Pictures of children smiling

In 2000, “Pay It Forward” was given a boost by the movie of the same name (one of my favourites), which was based on a book written by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

The Pay It Forward Foundation was established in September 2000 by Catherine Ryan Hyde and others "to educate and inspire students to realize that they can change the world, and provide them with opportunities to do so".

Stories about the work of people inspired by the Foundation have become so numerous that many blogs have been set up to capture them. If you visit that link, on the right hand side of the first page you will find more links to other organisations following the same philosophy.

The spirit of "Pay It Forward" is showing itself in many other ways.

Nobody will ever forget what happened on September 11th, 2001.

Picture of fireman after 9-11

Out of this disaster came The New York Says Thank You Foundation.

Here are the words of Jeff Parness, its founder:

From an act of extraordinary evil on September 11, 2001, Americans responded with so many acts of extraordinary kindness. People from all across the United States poured into New York City to volunteer, to pay their respects, and to be with us in our darkest moment.
New Yorkers will never forget that.
The mission of The New York Says Thank You Foundation is to send volunteers from New York City each year on the 9/11 Anniversary to help rebuild communities around the country affected by disasters. It is our way of commemorating the extraordinary love and generosity extended to New Yorkers by Americans from all across the United States in the days, weeks, and months following September 11th...
... [the Foundation] has helped rebuild homes burned in the Southern California wildfires; replanted 428 trees in two small Illinois towns devastated by an F3 tornado; rebuilt a 140-year-old church destroyed in a deadly Indiana tornado; and rebuilt the tornado-ravaged home of a Texas family that has cared for Disabled Veterans for three generations.
Picture of volunteers
Following Hurricane Katrina we organized 9 rebuilding trips to the Gulf Coast and helped rebuild the home of a 6-year-old boy in Slidell, Louisiana battling Leukemia and a 38-year-old mother in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi battling terminal cancer.
Beyond the communities and individual families we have touched, we have also provided unforgettable and life affirming experiences for our scores of volunteers, many of them New York City firefighters and other New Yorkers who personally experienced 9/11, and who understand all too well the meaning of loss and sacrifice.
We are humbled by the hundreds of local volunteers who turn out at all our rebuilding missions and by the growing group of volunteers from all the communities across the country that we have assisted on previous anniversaries of 9/11 and who continually volunteer at the next rebuilding projects as their way to "Pay It Forward."
[Let us] reach out as New Yorkers and as Americans and help rebuild communities recovering from disaster through the 10th year Anniversary of 9/11 and to take at least one member from every community we touch to help rebuild the next community in need. If we can keep this tradition going through September 11, 2011, that will serve as the greatest testament to the resilience and compassion of the American people. If we can do that for ten years, we win.
From one day of terror, 10 years of Kindness...

It is hard to imagine a better illustration of the "Pay It Forward" philosophy than the words above, especially those that I have highlighted.

Here is another great example from Google:

Project icon

Put simply, this project is a call for ideas to change the world by helping as many people as possible.

In 2008, Google invited the public to submit ideas in the following categories: with the promise of contributing $10,000,000 to implement five of the best suggestions.

Google recognized, however, that the real value lay in the ideas themselves, and that their financial contribution was just a jump-start.

In their call, Google wrote:

Never in history have so many people had so much information, so many tools at their disposal, so many ways of making good ideas come to life. Yet at the same time, so many people, of all walks of life, could use so much help, in both little ways and big.
In the midst of this, new studies are reinforcing the simple wisdom that beyond a certain very basic level of material wealth, the only thing that increases individual happiness over time is helping other people.
In other words, helping helps everybody, helper and helped alike.

Over 150,000 submissions were made, far more than was expected.

Voting finally began on September 25th 2009, when Google posted a selection of 16 "big ideas" (based on a larger number of individual suggestions) and asked the public to vote for their favourites, and you can see what happened on this project if you go here.

  • Why 10100?
  • Well, that's a very large number - 1 followed by 100 zeroes - which is known in mathematics as a googol.
  • The hope is that the snowballing effect of many positive ideas, big and small, benefiting the people carrying them out as well as the people that they help, may one day have a truly huge effect.

Thanks to my friend Sandy, who first told me about Project 10100 through this post.

I am particularly attracted to urban farming projects that involve children.

This is because these projects tackle many problems at the same time, including global warming, foreign-oil dependence, processed food, obesity and neighbourhood blight, while providing children with a better and more motivating environment in which to grow up - children who will later "pay it forward", each in his or her own way.

One example is the Food Project in Boston (see the picture above). From its web page:

"This project works to achieve both social and agricultural change by bringing together kids from diverse backgrounds to farm several lots in urban Boston, like this one on a hospital roof. [It] grows nearly 250,000 pounds of food without chemical pesticides, donating half to local shelters and selling the remainder at farmers' markets in disadvantaged neighborhoods or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) crop shares."

Another one is the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn.

If you are interested in urban farming projects involving children, you will find many more interesting and inspiring examples here.

And finally...

I have always loved this poem by Rudyard Kipling:

I keep six honest serving-men
     (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
     And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
     I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
     I give them all a rest.
I let them rest from nine till five,
     For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
     For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
     I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
     Who get no rest at all!
She sends 'em abroad on her own affairs,
     From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
     And seven million Whys!
— from The Elephant's Child in his Just So Stories, probably the greatest reading-aloud book ever written.

Kipling's "serving-men" are routinely used in news writing, research and police investigations, so I thought it would be fun (and maybe useful) to use them on the "Pay It Forward" philosophy, and see what happens...

  • What can I "pay forward"?
  • Anything that you feel grateful for, and would like to pass on to other people.
  • Depending on how fortunate you are in money, friends or family, how much kindness you have received from others, and how much you enjoy the world that you live in, that might cover a lot of territory!
  • Why should I "pay it forward"?
  • Misery, discourtesy and negativity spread infectiously - but then, so do happiness, courtesy and positivity. Which sounds better?
  • How and where can I "pay it forward"?
  • You can help others to do it, by donating to charities such as those mentioned in this section. If you have money to spare, however little, it's a really good way to spend it.
  • However, many people have found true happiness in spending time, rather than money, "paying it forward" personally to others.
  • It can be a really small thing. I'm grateful for being able to live in a nice part of the world, but one that has a litter problem. I take a bag with me when I walk the dog, and pick up litter as I go along. It is hardly any effort, and it is amazing what a difference removing a few fast-food wrappers and discarded Coke tins from a stretch of grass can make.
  • I feel happy doing it, other people on the same walks enjoy their outings more in the same way that I do, and fewer people are dropping litter in the first place. I see other walkers occasionally doing the same thing.
  • I am also grateful - very grateful - for having had an enjoyable life (which I don't plan to give up any time soon). I have come to realise that creating this web site, using what skills that I have, is a way of paying this enjoyment forward. I certainly enjoy the hours spent doing it, and hopefully what you are reading makes your life (and hence perhaps the lives of those around you) a little more enjoyable, too.
  • To whom should I "pay it forward"?
  • Anyone who needs it, of course... but if you have a choice, then I suggest that you include children, and the environment that they grow up in. That is because the long-term solution to much of the misery in this world, it seems to me, is people who have had a happy childhood.
  • (The abolition of certain forms of religion would also help enormously... but that's another story.)
  • When should I start "paying it forward"?
  • Look at it this way... today is the first day of the rest of your life.
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Give your PC something positive to do, too

Picture of snoozing PC

If you are a really fast touch-typist using your PC as a word processor, you might be able to sprint along at something like 600 key strokes a minute, or 10 key strokes a second. Most of us are a bit slower than that!

While you are typing at blistering speed, your PC is almost totally idle. It could fit in maybe 100,000,000 or more clock cycles of useful work between each of those key strokes. In fact, every second that your PC is switched on it is probably spending at least 1,000,000,000 clock cycles doing absolutely nothing, even when you are using it for actual jobs - it spends most of its time doing the computer equivalent of twiddling its fingers.

Some geniuses realized that the idle time of millions of PCs could be harnessed together to do some serious number crunching instead of digit-twiddling (a concept known as grid computing). The combined power of these PCs is truly awesome: no so-called super-computer comes anywhere close.

At the end of April 2007, Oxford University in England finished running a project to analyse millions of molecules in the search for a cure for cancer, making use of the massive parallel computing power of some of these PCs (more than 3,500,000 in April 2007), using this computing grid. It was easy to join in this research - basically you downloaded a screensaver-type program that collected work, processed it whenever your PC was idle and returned it to a central server, either automatically or when you wanted it to.

I ran this program for several years (as did over a million other people) and it was really unobtrusive and completely problem-free. In fact, I didn't run it as a screensaver, it was just a background task that was normally invisible.

The good news is, there are other opportunities still out there! If you're interested in global warming, you might be interested in joining Oxford University's current climate prediction project. If you're interested in astronomy, read this interesting article about Einstein@Home.

You can find out about other distributed computing projects here and here.

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If all else fails, enjoy complaining!

Picture of quill pen

I hope eventually to compile a collection of great complaints sent in by people reading this page... but in the meantime, here's one of my own to fill in with.

The Air Journey From Hell

This was a letter that I wrote to the customer relations department of a package holiday company, whose name I am kindly suppressing.

Dear Sir,

My wife and I recently had an extremely pleasant holiday on Lake Maggiore, staying at the Hotel Cannero. However our experience of the airline (particularly on the outgoing leg) was sufficiently bad that we feel you should know what we went through, and why we think that your use of this airline is totally inconsistent with the quality of your otherwise excellent organisation.

I should begin by explaining that my wife and I both have demanding jobs, and we feel that we really need our holidays. On this particular occasion my wife was recovering from an illness, and the holiday was intended to be part of the cure. Also, we appreciate that some of the incidents we relate were relatively minor in themselves, and not all of them were under the control of the airline concerned, but the cumulative effect was considerable. Given a different approach by the airline the incidents would not have mattered nearly so much, and it is their approach that we are really complaining about.

Our outgoing flight was EAF 3222, on 6th July, from Gatwick to Milan. Originally the flight had been earlier, but you had advised us of a change of airline and flight, the result being a revised scheduled departure of 17:30, arriving Milan 20:20. This change was in itself very unwelcome, as it would result in a late arrival at the resort and deprive us of one evening meal at the hotel. We obtained a small financial recompense for this via our travel agent.

On arrival at Gatwick, we suffered a couple of minor irritations at the check-in. We were advised that there was a previously unheard-of (and very low) weight limit on items of hand luggage, which meant that my small flight bag containing a folding umbrella, a modest camera plus extra lens, a light-weight shaver and a couple of books was considered overweight, and I had to repack some items. Then we were asked the usual questions about electrical items in luggage. I remembered that my wife had packed a newly-purchased second-hand camera in one of our 3 cases, and since this had a battery and could be considered to be electrical, I told the check-in person about that. He said we would have to have all our bags X-rayed. When I asked out of curiosity why we had to have all 3 cases X-rayed, instead of just the bag with the camera, his response was to say: “Well, how do we know you packed the camera in the case you said you did?” Thinking that we needn't have mentioned the camera at all, we complied cheerfully enough with the regulations, which of course are in our interests, and made the short detour to re-check our bags.

The 17:30 departure was initially delayed for what now seems like the inevitable minimum 30 minutes for cheap flights. The plane was a somewhat scruffy-looking old BAC-111 (by which I mean that the paint on the leading edge of the tail-plane had been worn away). The plane had barely begun to reverse from the stand when it stopped, and the pilot announced that a safety device had failed in one engine (his explanations using a car engine and gearbox as an analogy were incomprehensible), and that an attempt would be made to reset it. Time passed, and then we were told that unfortunately a spare part would be required and none was available, and that we would have to disembark and return to the terminal. However, we would have to wait a little longer in the plane while transfer passes were organised.

Back in the satellite terminal, we waited some considerable time for information at the departure gate. By this time we were feeling quite tired and stressed, and we were beginning to wonder what we would feel like by the time we eventually arrived, whether we would have to sleep at Gatwick, or whether we would just have to sit in the terminal until the plane was fixed. Eventually we were told only that we now had to return to the main departure lounge, and collect “meal vouchers”. The girl at the gate couldn't tell us whether we would get off that night, or any other information.

We were hungry as well as tired, so we were looking forward to at least a good meal, since it was obviously going to be a very long time until we would get on the plane, if at all that night. Our first serious complaint is that the vouchers were for a mere £5 each. This is a completely inappropriate level of recompense for a long delay, particularly at this time of the evening. I enclose a bill for the modest meal which we actually had, which came to £26.40 for the two of us, of which the vouchers only paid £10.

Before we had the meal, the fire alarms were set off in the departure lounge (due to a hoax or minor incident not requiring evacuation), and rang for about 15 minutes, which seemed a very long time. If you have heard these alarms go off you will know that this is not a soothing experience. Of course this was nothing to do with the airline. (However, we wondered if it was really necessary to ring the alarms for so long after it had been determined and announced that there was no serious problem.) My wife was beginning to feel quite poorly by this point.

The screens eventually showed a new departure time of 23:15. There was no announcement, and no information given to us when we asked the people in the information centre in the departure lounge. We tried to get some rest on the seats in the lounge. As 22:45 approached and went, and the screen information still showed a departure time of 23:15, the passengers (including ourselves) began to get quietly annoyed with the people at the information desk, who insisted that they could tell us nothing. We insisted that they should ring someone and find out. Eventually we were given information to the effect that the engine had been repaired and we would shortly be boarding.

More time went by, and the screen still did not change. Then, without warning, it changed from “Delayed 23:15” to “Flight Closing”, which normally indicates your last chance to get on the aircraft - and we were some distance away from the satellite. After a fast walk and a trip on the transit, we arrived at the gate in the satellite terminal to find no-one manning the desk, the plane outside on the tarmac with no lights on, and mechanics obviously still working on the engine, whose cowling was open.

So we still had no information, and just had to wait. Eventually a grim-faced woman (I can sympathise with her feelings, but she made no attempt to be pleasant to the waiting customers, who were sitting patiently and not complaining) turned up to man the desk, but there was still no new information.

When we finally boarded the aircraft, around midnight, the pilot gave us a long and again incomprehensible explanation about the failure in the engine, involving an analogy with a car and clutches and gearboxes, neither of which are well-known components of jet engines. He explained that it was a component “designed to fail”, perhaps not a good choice of phrase, and that they had had to get a new part delivered from Southampton, following which it had to be installed and the engine tested. He asked us not to be hard on the stewardesses, who had had a long day, and had only managed to get a couple of hours lie-down in the hotel (there were some audible adverse reaction from the passengers at this point, none of whom had been making any kind of fuss, and certainly not to the stewardesses who were very unlikely to have been responsible for the engine failure - and we didn't think that the engineers fixing the engine late on a Sunday night were having a barrel of laughs, either). He did not apologise for the delay or inconvenience, nor did anyone else on the aircraft. It was not until we eventually disembarked in Milan that one stewardess murmured timidly “Sorry about the delay” in my ear, which was the first time the word “sorry” was used; and I can only tell you that I had the distinct impression that she was flouting her airline's policy by so doing.

The final straw, from a PR point of view, was that we had to pay to buy even soft drinks on the aircraft. I find the habit of charging for drinks on cheap flights very irritating at the best of times; providing at least one free drink per passenger would speed up service, improve PR, and would add nothing noticeable to the cost of the holiday. We didn't get these drinks until after 00:30, and when I observed to the stewardess that a 6½ hour delay would surely merit at least one complimentary drink, she agreed and told me that the stewardesses thought so too - but “weren't allowed”.

We were much too tired to eat on the plane, even if we had wanted to. We couldn't sleep, though, the bright lights and an endless series of loudspeaker announcements at ear-piercing volume saw to that. Our enthusiasm for buying duty-free goods at 01:45 was fairly low.

We arrived in Milan airport around 3am local time. It was deserted (apart from one grumpy passport official who spent an average of over 30 seconds on each passport, which may not sound much but I can assure you that it felt like it in the circumstances). We were stressed and exhausted, and very gloomy about what we would find when we emerged in the arrival area. Would we have to wait until dawn before ringing the hotel?

At this point, everything changed. The [holiday company] courier was waiting with a handful of other passengers. He was smiling, charming and managed to convey that there was absolutely nothing he liked doing better than driving us for several hours in the small hours of the morning. He probably didn't get to bed himself until at least 6am. If you have any kind of medal or award for such a person, please award it to him - he really deserves it. He epitomised everything which the customer interface for an organisation should be, and everything which the airline was not.

The staff at the Hotel Cannero, without exception, were equally helpful, friendly and charming - I don't think I have ever stayed at a hotel with nicer people. The resort and hotel lived up to its description in every way and we thoroughly enjoyed it. [You can read a description of that holiday here.] Only the prospect of being once again exposed to that airline cast a shadow over our final days.

In fact, our return flight was relatively painless. It was, of course, the obligatory half hour late, but that was nothing. We had a plague of mosquitoes in the aircraft, who all seemed to board at Milan (I am serious), and for the first 10 minutes of the flight the passengers and stewardesses were still swatting them; but this was also relatively minor. The food was possibly the most tasteless and unappetising I have ever had in a life-time of flying - the main constituent being a dry, bland “Shepherd's Pie” which reminded me of hospital, the other constituents being a whole-wheat roll, a pat of margarine (no cheese), and a sort of Mr Kipling mini-pie in a foil cup. But after wonderful Italian food, would we have appreciated even something half-way decent? Even the ear-piercing announcements were bearable - we were shortly about to get off the plane, never to knowingly use this airline again.

I should say again that the incidents themselves on the outward flight are not really what were are complaining about. Mechanical failures happen, although it is possible that less than ideal routine maintenance could have contributed to this particular case. It is the extremely poor consideration shown to passengers, the lack of information, courtesy and common PR sense, which seem to us to be totally inconsistent with the [holiday company] image.

We have used [the holiday company] 4 times, and have enjoyed each holiday very much. However we will seriously have to think about not using your company in the future, if the air travel part of the holiday is to be conducted by this particular charter company.

Can you assure us that this aspect of your holidays will improve in the future? And would you kindly send a copy of this letter to the airline concerned?

Many thanks.

I got a less than satisfactory reply, and the holiday company received no more of our custom. But heck - it was fun writing it.

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