Northside - Andrew Martin gets First Class treatment

"Excuse me, mate, I'm not feeling the best. Any chance of a seat in First Class?"

Last Friday, I went to Manchester in a train carriage packed with Arsenal fans heading for the Cup tie at Old Trafford. In any group of blokes on a train, there's always one who has to stand up, so as to address all his mates simultaneously, and annoy the rest of the carriage by breaking the news that he's just broken wind, or by outlining his drinking plans for the evening. In this case, the public speaker was a football fan of the new kind: pretty, well-dressed in Italian-looking clothes - and everything in his life, it seemed, was "sorted".

As the (Lancastrian) ticket collector approached, this confident fellow turned to one of his mates and muttered: "I fancy blagging an upgrade." "Excuse me, mate," he said, "I'm not feeling the best. Any chance of getting a bit of peace and quiet up there?" And he pointed unerringly to First Class. Keen though I was to get this man out of my line of sight, I was willing the ticket collector to decline his request, but he meekly acceded. Another victory for the south over the north.

As I stepped off the train at Manchester Piccadilly, I observed a female flower seller who seemed as typical of her city as the Arsenal fan was of London. She was addressing a swankily dressed woman who'd just dropped some litter next to the flower stall.

"Oh, you're a lovely lady," said the flower vendor. "I really like sweeping up your rubbish."

That's Mancunians for you, I reflected: at all times darkly and entertainingly ironic. But later on I was in a city-centre pub next to a railway viaduct (doesn't narrow it down much, I know), listening to a Mancunian who was possibly the most hearteningly upbeat older person I've ever encountered. He was addressing a younger couple who were obviously new to the city and saying:

"Oh yes, there's been some tremendous changes to Manchester over the years. Have you seen the new gay quarter? Oh, it's wonderful. Free expression! It's on Canal Street and someone's scrubbed out the 'C' on the sign. It's vandalism, yes, but it does bring a smile to the face, doesn't it?

". . . I'll be off to the game tomorrow," he continued. "I was born in the shadow of Old Trafford so I've always been a United fan. Born lucky, you might say!"

The following day, as I was preparing to board my train for the return journey to Euston, a Virgin Trains official said: "Would you like to take a seat in First Class, sir? Keep you away from the football fans." Having the effusive Arsenal lads to thank for this, I regretted my earlier churlishness towards them.

All in all, a very balanced weekend.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Can Blair survive?