Welcome to slovenly Britain

Observations on Heathrow

If Britain is so rich, why is it such a dump? It is clear that GDP per head doesn't tell you very much about a country. The febrile dinginess of Britain is immediately apparent on landing at Heathrow from abroad, as I did recently. There are few uglier concatenations of buildings in the world than this airport, permanently struggling to keep pace with its traffic. I know this must be a difficult task, but Heathrow is not the only busy airport in the world. It is, however, one of the most dispiriting and unpleasant.

I had been to five airports other than Heathrow in the previous three weeks, and I saw more litter within 30 seconds of alighting at Heathrow than in all the others combined. It is as if British retinas now screen out litter automatically, without having to think about it. The British, therefore, need make no effort to remove it: for them, it removes itself by parapsychological means.

Many of the ceiling tiles of the corridors were down, revealing pipes. I considered the possibility that it was an experiment in gimcrack postmodernist aesthetics of the kind beloved of British architects, but then I decided it was just plain, old- fashioned dilapidation.

The first moving walkway I encountered in Heathrow was out of order - the only walkway out of order that I saw in all the six airports. There was a notice apologising for the inconvenience, but no sign of any activity to repair it. This is a manifestation of what might be called our "sorry culture": "Sorry for the delay to your journey", "Sorry for the inconvenience", etc, but never any improvement.

The lighting in some parts of the airport brought back to me the Prague of good old Dr Husak's days. The floor around the baggage carousel was sticky, presumably because someone, unable to tolerate more than five minutes without refreshment, had spilt a sweet soft drink on the floor and it had dried there.

In each of the four other countries I visited, the immigration officials were smartly uniformed, but at Heathrow they were in civvies - of a sort.

The woman who looked at my passport was wearing a £3 T-shirt that was far from clean. She was dressed for reclining on a dirty sofa, watching telly with tins of beer and a cat giving birth to kittens all around her. The other officials were scarcely better-dressed.

The informality of appearance, however, should not be mistaken for friendliness. Anyone who has observed how British immigration officials treat people who come from countries with smaller GDPs per head than Britain will know that friendly is not the word to describe them. Bureaucrat, proud bureaucrat, drest in a little brief authority! Slovenly arrogance is not pleasing to behold.

Outside, everything is dirty, grey, chaotic, mean-spirited and obviously inadequate to the function it is supposed to perform. Everything has been done to the lowest possible specification, without thought of anything but some kind of short-term bottom line. Just as the people evince no self-respect, so the country evinces no pride.

One thing, and one thing only, can be said in favour of Heathrow: it gives the visitor to Britain an accurate foretaste of what is to come once he or she leaves the airport.