Those air heads are off the rails

Over short distances, train travel trumps air travel in every department.

It is rare that I am seized by the desire to grab a complete stranger and urge them to change their ways. I don't consider myself to take the moral high ground on many issues. I eat animals even though I'm aware it would probably be more ethical to stop, and I regularly pour massive quantities of oil on to previously unpolluted stretches of countryside (in the light of the recent Twitter joke trial, I should probably place on record immediately that the last remark was humorous, with no basis in reality). "Live and let live" would be my philosophy, if I didn't come from a generation too vacuous and addled by MTV to have philosophies.

But this week I found myself overhearing (by which I mean deliberately eavesdropping on) a conversation in a café. A businesswoman was looking ahead to a trip from London to Manchester. "I was all set to drive," she said proudly, "and then I thought to myself, what about the plane?! Booked myself a flight. Only takes an hour. Brilliant. It's got to be the best way to travel up and down the country."

Completely nuts

“What about trains?" I longed to scream at her. "Think about your carbon footprint. Think about the ridiculous false economy of flying to and from isolated airports miles out of town, against the ease of gliding into Manchester city centre! Ask yourself whether you really want to climb thousands of feet into the air, only to begin your descent before you've managed to get the packet of pretzels open!"

I would like to report that I did yell all these things at my fellow diner, but honesty compels me to admit that I lost my nerve. However, I gave her a searching look that communicated all of the above. I would be surprised if she hadn't left the café and immediately started rebooking her travel.

This is not really a moral stance at all, though. I'm just amazed at the number of internal flights that take place every day, and the number of people who can be bothered to go through the tedious routine - shoes off, laptop out of the bag, queuing for a taxi at the other end - when they could be on a train. Even flying to Paris seems bizarre to me, when the infinitely more romantic Eurostar awaits. But flying London-Manchester? Or for that matter London-Glasgow, or London-Newcastle? It's not just using a sledgehammer to crack a nut; it's doing that when there is a perfectly good nutcracker on the table right next to you.

Over short distances, train travel trumps air travel in every department. You can plug in your laptop and get things done. It's cheaper, provided you book in advance, which in the age of the internet surely doesn't present a big obstacle to the sort of web-savvy business-folk who are making these journeys. You arrive smack-bang in the middle of your chosen destination, rather than at an airport sheepishly bearing the name of a city situated more than 100 miles away.

It's at least as time-efficient: the time plane travel supposedly saves you is nullified by the getting-there-early and the hanging around at the other end. And, yes, it is a lot more environmentally friendly. All right, the world may be doomed anyway, but do we really have to rub it in by using carbon-hungry planes to fly us up the road?

Plane stupid

Then there's the idea that trains are somehow too unreliable for the hotshot traveller. Perhaps at one time this was true. But having spent almost every minute of my waking life since 2002 on a train, I can assure you that they are now at least as reliable as planes, and you don't have the suspicion that they might plummet out of the sky. All train operators have got more punctual and efficient in the past few years: that's not based on statistics, but on experience of visiting every station in the United Kingdom. It's more than five years since I was delayed for more than an hour on a train. Can you really tell me that planes beat that?

I apologise for venting here what I should have taken out on that hapless business traveller in the café, but it really is time we all got on trains more. I'm writing this in first class from Edinburgh to London: it cost me £29. We've had breathtaking coastal views all the way. I've got a lot of work done. I'm thoroughly relaxed. Actually, on second thoughts, leave this for me. Don't you dare book a train ticket. You keep getting on those aeroplanes. I'll wave at you from my deserted luxury carriage. You won't see me, of course, because you'll be in a cloud, or in turbulence, or watching part of a film that will be interrupted when you land, or congratulating yourself on the time saved.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Advantage Cameron

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit