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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

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

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear