My love-hate relationship with National Express

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts, writes Holly Baxter.

When I first got told that the New Statesman was desperate to hear from an insider about the "red-headed stepchild of transport", I had to agree with their assessment of coach travel. Coach travel is unglamorous. In fact, it’s no understatement to say that coach travel has been the bane of my otherwise plain-sailing twentysomething life: hailing from Newcastle and living in London, it’s both an alluringly cheap and experientially horrific form of travelling from Hoxton hipsters to Geordies in a "mere" eight and a half hours. In fact, I’ve been drawn in so often by the National Express website’s glittering promises of £5 rides from London Pride to Newcastle Brown Ale that I even went to Belgium on one a couple of months ago. In case you’re wondering, that one had its horrific moments too – but I’d do it again in an instant.

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts. The terror sets in the day before: am I interesting enough to sustain myself intellectually for almost an entire waking day, sandwiched (in all likelihood) between a screaming child and an impossibly fat man, with only my iPod to separate myself from them socially? Will they attempt to speak to me? Will I feel compelled by British politeness to reply, and so end up in a long conversation about the nuances of my upbringing somewhere along the M21? Will I cry? Even worse, am I one of those people who isn’t quite calm or stupid or drunk enough to immerse myself fully in back-to-back albums of Indie Artist A with nary a thought in my head, but also not quite profound enough to retract into my various deep and meaningful ruminations, feeding for hours off the various philosophical scenarios that they offer up? Inevitably, yes, you are one of those people. You are traversing the country at a steady and constant 50mph, stuck between "bored of Leonard Cohen after four hours" and "bored of my own theories on the use of anarchist spaces in urban environments after one". Folk rock and a hard place.

If you have a companion on these arduous journeys, the whole situation can be made even worse. My friend Sean and I, for instance, have travelled back home together a handful of times, and no longer do so for the sake of our friendship. The near-fatal argument came when Sean convinced me to branch out into the £1 Megabus, despite my previous lifetime loyalty to the lush pleather seats and the plentiful wifi of the National Express. About five minutes into stepping aboard, the coach heated up to about 40˚C (unexpectedly, since it was the middle of December) and stayed this way for the entire journey. The man across the row from us was visibly panting. Sean and I had to keep swapping seats in order to take turns pressing ourselves against the condensation on the windows to temporarily cool down. Regrettable words were passed between us – but a year on, the wounds are beginning to heal. It may have ultimately made us stronger.

The coach is an increasingly niche form of transport: the most recent reports by the ONS found that many coach passengers are – for want of a much better cliché – jumping ship. Trains are becoming the preferred method of public transport for those who previously hopped on the coach, although most of those who work choose to drive ourselves. To travel by coach nowadays, you’re most likely to be either very young or very old: 17-20, or well into your retirement. This may say something about these demographics having the least amount of money (or, indeed, sense) at their disposal; but I prefer to see it as symptomatic of the undying optimism of kindly grandmothers and The Youth. It’s cheap, it’s easy to access, it comes with the tantalising possibility of being scenic; you can kick back with a pear cider and a headphone splitter and ask your boyfriend what he thinks of your band’s latest album before you arrive at Glastonbury. The coach driver will probably be a laugh. Everyone will glance at each other knowingly when the boxy vehicle takes a turn too sharply, because being squashed into such close confines at such low prices comes with its own wartime-esque camaraderie guarantee.

For this sort of experience, the train doesn’t really cut it. For one thing, trains are and have always been segregated by class, never mind planes and types of cars: Geordie legend has it that when Queen Victoria passed by Newcastle on the rail network, she requested that all the first class blinds be closed lest she catch a glimpse of the filthy waters of the Tyne and its filthier residents dwelling above. There is no class system on a National Express coach. Everyone has to follow the same treacherous motorway choreography to the toilet. There are no delusions of joining the Mile High(way?) Club. Orgasms on the dual carriageway? Pah! Even an inadvisedly microwaved panini from the buffet car is out of reach: almost all passengers will have a cellophaned sandwich in their hand luggage, tucked away for the fourth hour, at which point everyone will simultaneously set their lunches free and the one unthinking sushi-bringer will be judged harshly but fairly.

If that’s not enough to tempt you into a slippery pleather seat, then consider that coaches are six times less polluting than an aircraft, four times cleaner than a car, and twice as environmental as a train. They are seven times safer than driving on your own, and if you get through the journey from the South to the North of England in one piece while journeying alongside a companion, the trauma (and the subsequent "funny story") will almost definitely cement your relationship for life.

And that’s without even factoring in what can happen if you carry on into Scotland.

This piece is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts about travel and transport.

A woman passes a coach. Photograph: Getty Images
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.