An ancient aunt has given me her battered collection of foreign phrase books first published when most of the globe was still a respectable pink. They contain a stirring string of complaints guaranteed to keep the cheekiest chamber maid or uppity matre d' in place. Back then no self-respecting Brit crossed the Channel without knowing where to find the French for "The bed linen is unacceptably damp" or "This food disgusts me". There are also useful opening gambits for anyone sufficiently foolhardy to engage Johnny Foreigner in small talk. For example, there can be few better ways of breaking the ice than by announcing in German: "My cousin informs me the pig sticking was excellent in India this year."
My giddy aunt has taken motoring holidays in Europe since the early Fifties and her memories are as improbable as the phrase books she took with her. She remembers when the Costa del Sol was a necklace of tiny fishing villages which only the most intrepid traveller bothered to visit. She has a faded snapshot of herself, young and beautiful on an otherwise deserted expanse of golden sand. She insists the beach is Torremolinos.
When she and my uncle first visited the Costas - in those halcyon days before package holidays changed the Mediterranean forever - they congratulated themselves on having found heaven on earth. And then watched in horror as it was transformed into a concrete hell of high-rise hotels, noisy nightclubs and fast food outlets. The tourist boom destroyed the qualities that gave the region its appeal. The hordes fighting for enough space on the beach to spread out their towels could only guess at the paradise that has now been lost.
As my aunt mourns her lost Shangri-La, I have some sympathy for her - I feel the same way about what has happened to the Internet.
If you are a newbie (as novice Internet users were once patronisingly called) you might not appreciate that the Internet was once a very different place. Although I have no blurred snapshots to prove it, some of us came on-line at a time when there was no Java script, no JPEGs, no digitised sound, no streamed video, no animated GIFs. Come to that, there weren't even URLs in those innocent days when WWW stood for the Meteorological Organisation's World Weather Watch.
The Web, when it arrived, made life online even better but it remained anarchic, unreliable and infuriating. Modems cost a fortune and were fiendishly difficult to interface with the PC unless you had completed a PhD in computer science. And they were unimaginably slow: it didn't feel as if you were surfig the Net so much as doggie-paddling through treacle. You didn't mind because you did so with an overwhelming sense that you were participating in some grand utopian experiment.
It's difficult to say this without sounding as though I spent the Sixties in San Francisco with a flower in my hair, but it did seem as if the Web offered the opportunity to create a new kind of community that would transcend international and class boundaries. The success of the WWW would depend not on Big Brother or big business but on the contribution we would make to it. I'm not claiming that a ragamuffin army of geeks, nerds and propeller heads creating fatuous Web pages and posting pretentious twaddle on bulletin boards was really building a new Jerusalem, simply that it felt as if this is what we were doing.
Then something happened. Instead of remaining an exclusive club, every Tom, Dick and Harriet suddenly responded to the hype and the hullabaloo. Like a horde of package holidaymakers racing to the beach, they claimed the Internet for themselves. They came, not as pioneers eager to create a new virtual community but because they wanted to e-shop until they e-dropped. The entrepreneurs - with their fabled dot.com sites - were only too happy to oblige. Visit the Web today and you could be forgiven for concluding that Shangri-La is being replaced by a vast shopping mall.
There's no doubt that this boom in e-commerce is appreciated by the house-bound, those in remote areas and fraudsters seeking new ways of conning the public. But try as I might to muster some enthusiasm for shopping on the Net, I find it as exciting as thumbing through an Argos catalogue.
It wouldn't matter so much if you could escape the relentless hard sell, but there hardly seems to be a page on the Web that isn't festooned with badly designed adverts. And it can only get worse. ISPs that follow AltaVista's lead and offer free telephone access will only be able to finance the operation by selling even more advertising space. The WWW will end up like those free newspapers in which so many column inches are filled with ads that you can't be bothered to read the articles.
Like Torremolinos, the Internet has lost its appeal. I doubt if I'll be spending much more time there. I'll consign my modem to the attic along with the CB radio and hoola-hoop. I'll find some other way of wiling away my spare time, an activity the masses and the merchandisers haven't yet claimed for their own. I'm toying with the idea of taking up pig sticking on the sub-continent. At least it will give me something to talk about next time I visit Germany.
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