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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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war