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

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times