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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No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.