My suave, sophisticated exterior, my je ne sais quoi and general elegance, may have convinced you that I am a man used to the finer things in life. And while it's certainly true that I carry myself with the air of one of the 1%, at heart, I'm a cheapskate. No, that's not true; I'm not cheap, I'm just careful. I didn't have much money growing up so I learnt to be cautious with my money; I saved for things I really wanted, rather than frittering my meagre funds on pointless indulgences.
First class travel comes under this category of "why bother?". I very rarely travel first class by train because it's an awful lot more money to spend for very little payback. The only time it's sort of worth it is travelling to and from London; usually the train is so rammed that the free wi-fi and tables at the front of the Pendolino are a welcome change. Even then I'm more of a "£15 Weekend upgrade" person, rather than paying in advance.
However, I was on the TransPennine Express website, booking my seat for a trip to York, and I noticed that there was only a few pounds difference between standard and first class. Why not? I wondered. I'd never done it before, and I was curious to see what I got for the extra cash.
Short answer: antimacassars. Antimacassars as far as the eye could see. It was a glorious sight. I love antimacassars or rather, I love the word antimacassar. It's right up there with pianoforte and portmanteau and heliotrope; elaborate Victorian words that have too many syllables and are a bugger to spell. Each seat came with its own antimacassar, made out of some kind of woven paper, and ostentatiously labelled to remind you that you was in the top tier of travellers.
The seats also had a recliner button. This sounds great, but in reality it shifted your spine into a colossally uncomfortable position. It was like an osteopath's table, if the osteopath gave up on getting you horizontal and just decided to do what he could with you.
I didn't have a table. My assigned seat was facing backwards, rammed down the end of the coach on the row of "priority" seating, so I was left with a fold down tray that could barely hold my many accoutrements.
(From left to right: my battery to charge my i-devices, my Kindle, my iPod, my journal, a pen, and a cup of tea from home).
Still, at least I didn't have anyone sitting next to me. There were only two other people in the compartment, both in suits, one of them already barking into his iPhone. The other one, a younger man, sucked on his Caffe Nero as though it were a life-giving elixir, eyes staring dully ahead. Fierce air-conditioning chilled the glass walled section so well I was tempted to burst into Let It Go.
The diesel engines coughed into life and started carrying us out of Lime Street. It didn't seem right, a first class compartment on a noisy diesel, like an MP3 player in the dashboard of a Robin Reliant. The rumble beneath us didn't scream "high life". Michelle, our conductor, appeared to check our tickets. I say check; she scribbled something on them and completely failed to spot that the man with the coffee had a standard ticket and wanted to pay for an upgrade. "I haven't done one of these in ages," she said, swinging her little ticket machine under her bosom. I guessed that he couldn't face the cram of standard in his fragile state. They went into hushed tones to discuss the cost, so the rest of us wouldn't be disturbed by talk of something as common as money, but it sounded a bit like fifty two quid.
Michelle looked at my ticket through her Su Pollard glasses, saw my destination and said, "York. There's where I'm getting off too." My social awkwardness struck; I wasn't sure how I was meant to react. "I don't care," seemed a bit harsh, but that was how I basically felt; the alternative seemed to be suggesting we go for a drink, which I really didn't want to do. In the end I went with half-hearted gurgle laugh, a kind of "a haha", which pleased nobody.
At Liverpool South Parkway, she did the full, "on behalf of the train crew, thank you for travelling with First TransPennine Express" speech, which seemed a bit over the top for a station on the Northern Line. We gained a couple more passengers in First, but the real onslaught came at Warrington, when suddenly the section was half full. Meanwhile, in Standard, it was standing room only, and I felt a pang of guilt for sitting there while faces were pressed against the glass dividers staring in. A man tried standing in the vacant trolley space, but Michelle wouldn't have it. "These people have paid extra to travel in this section."
"I know. That's why I'm not sitting down. I'm not taking a seat."
"I'm sorry, you'll have to leave. These people have paid for First Class," she repeated, and I cringed again. She may as well have stamped UNCLEAN on his forehead and thrown him on the tracks. How long is it before you start feeling a sense of entitlement about your seat? No-one else seemed bothered.
We swept past Deansgate-Castlefield Metrolink station, which seemed impossibly glamorous with its modern trams and its LCD advertising screens and the Beetham Tower looming over it all (then Whitworth Street destroys the illusion with its snooker hall and ugly nightclubs). Platforms 13 and 14 at Piccadilly continue to be a blight on the network; overcrowded, breezy and oversubscribed. People swarmed on and off, and my companions all left and were replaced by new faces. They're still mostly wearing suits.
Also joining us at Piccadilly was the refreshment trolley and, with it, the Trolley Boy. That might seem like a patronising term for a member of the train crew but I suspect that he'd embrace the phrase himself. Whippet thin, nut brown from a tanning salon or four, and with diamond studs in each ear, he locked his cart into position then appeared at my elbow. "Can I get you a hot drink?"
Finally! Freebies! I drank my tea somewhere around Widnes, so I opted for a coffee with milk. It's delivered to my seat, giving me a good chance to admire his diamanté studded Swatch and the small diamond piercing in the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. Then he continued to dole out the hot beverages, before returning to me with a basket full of baked goods. "Would you like something from the basket, sir?" he says, and perhaps it was just my over-sensitive ears, but I interpreted it as meaning "just ONE, you fat bastard." I grabbed a mini pain au raisin; the alternatives seemed to be some kind of snack bar for people who want to attend meetings with a poppy seed jammed in their front teeth and what may have once been a shortbread.
I took one bite and paused: was this a practical joke? Was it a test to see if you really belonged in First Class? Because I was sure I was eating packing materials. It was cloyingly thick and packed with so many artificial flavourings, in lab conditions it may actually have achieved sentience. Obviously I ate it (see above re: cheapskate) but I was glad I had the hard coffee to get rid of the taste.
Beyond Stalybridge, the woman across the way kicked off her heels to rest her feet on the seat in front. I was outraged. You expect that kind of behaviour from louts on a Merseyrail train, but not people in First Class. So there's your answer: you acquire a sense of entitlement somewhere in East Manchester. Note it on the map.
We passed through tunnel after tunnel, the diesel engines working their hardest to lift us up over the Pennines. Beyond Batley we stopped completely; the driver apologised that a late running stopping train has held us up. It's a reminder of just how crammed the network is, how precise the train movements are, how easily they can become dislodged. One tiny fleck of dirt in the gears and the machine stops.
Soon we were speeding again, and most people got off at Leeds. There's only half an hour left of travel for me. My new companions were an elderly lady in a bright fuschia jacket, making her look like the oldest Pink Lady at Rydell High, an Asian businessman who immediately whips out his laptop and begins banging away furiously, and a man with two newspapers. One was the Daily Mail and one was The Times; he read the Mail first, but all I could notice was his nostril hairs, which were silhouetted against the light from the window and seemed to be about eight feet long. I had a strong urge to lean across and yank them out.
I took advantage of the long uninterrupted section to use the toilet. There's a disabled toilet at the end of the train, behind the driver's cabin, which you can only access through First Class; it's not officially the Top Toilet, for our exclusive use, but it may as well be. When I left there was a woman waiting to use it, leaving me feeling anxious about her judging what state I left it in (I only had a pee, but that's not the point). When she returned I studiously looked down at my Kindle.
Michelle announced that we were approaching York, "where there will be a change of crew", and most of us stretched. Beyond York, the train heads to Scarborough before turning round; no-one in the compartment seems to be the type for a day out by the sea. Except for me in a short sleeved shirt, and possibly the Pink Lady, but she was up and rushing to the exit in a show of speed I hadn't expected.
A couple of hours after leaving Lime Street and I'm at my destination. Is it worth the extra cash? For me, no. As I board the train at Liverpool - the start of the journey - I can pretty much always get a seat. If I was getting on at Warrington or Oxford Road the extra cash to be guaranteed somewhere to sit down might be worth it but for me it was just a bonus. The coffee and pastry really didn't sell it either.
Still, I have booked a first class trip to Grimsby in June. Again, it's more of a security blanket to guarantee a seat when I change at Manchester. I'll try to remain grounded, readers. I'll try not to become a diva.