Saturday, December 25, 2010

On the British class system and travelling First Class

It's an odd thing travelling First Class on Britain's trains. For a start, hardly anyone else does it, so you'd be virtually guaranteed a seat even if you didn't reserve one. The rest of the train can be completely packed - and has been on all the train journeys I've taken so far - and First Class remains more than half-empty, its passengers sitting in splendid isolation at the front of the train.

What I find most interesting is the attitude of those travelling Second Class (or whatever it's called these days). It's as if there's a barrier between First and Second which almost no-one is willing to breach when holding a Second Class ticket. They can be standing in the aisles in Second - and frequently are - but it's as if First doesn't exist, or has been rendered invisible for the duration of the journey.

When I lived in England I would never have dreamed of going First Class on the train. First class was for other people - not that we knew any, or expected to. Those other people were posh people, rich people, probably upper class people.

Being middle middle class myself, I don't think I ever met anyone who went First Class. We all crammed into Second like sardines, and if we didn't win the mad dash to get on the train first and grab a seat we'd be standing up for the duration of the journey or sitting on our suitcases next to the doors and trying not to get bowled over as people got on or off. No question of transferring to First though. Crikey! The very thought!

I think the fact that I've lived in New Zealand for nearly 20 years - where the class system is virtually non-existent - means that I have finally overcome my inbuilt (inbred?) inability to consider travelling First. But old habits die hard, and even now it does feel a bit odd.

Bringing mum down from Birmingham to Cambridge on the train yesterday was an illuminating experience. "We're in First Class" I loudly proclaimed to any and all railway officials who came within earshot - as if this would somehow bestow special powers or privilege on us - which perhaps it did. Or maybe all British Rail employees are as kind as the ones we encountered - or possibly it was mum's influence that inspired them all to be incredibly helpful and thoughtful.

Mum was a bit horrified that I'd bought us First Class tickets. I could almost hear the unspoken commentary. "We don't travel First Class! It's not for the likes of us!" But Oh My God how much better it is to travel First with a reserved seat. No need to panic about having to fight for somewhere to park ourselves for the duration, we just make our way down to the front of the train. Once there the kindly station attendant helps me to leap mum across the yawning gap between platform and train (it's HUGE in Birmingham) and there we are - seats with our names on, and nothing to worry about.

I found it fascinating to watch the other passengers stuck just outside our door in the entrance to Second Class. Out of the hundred or so people jammed into Second, only two decided to upgrade to First. With much apologetic mumbling two people ventured into First and sat down. "Gosh the train's so full.... I hope it's not too expensive to upgrade.... I'll pay...."

It was as if one is only allowed into First if there's absolutely no possibility of a seat in Second - and then only on sufferance - because of course they are most definitely not supposed to be there - not being the Right Kind Of People.

You'd think that more people would do it. It's so infinitely better in First - simply because of the space and guarantee of a seat. But they just don't. One other enterprising person was brave enough to stow their suitcase on the luggage shelves in our carriage - and would pop in now and again to get stuff out or put stuff away - but everyone else just stuck it out in Second - beyond those magical automatic doors.

For some reason no-one came to check our tickets - maybe it was the bad weather, or maybe they don't always have a ticket checker on this particular train - which meant that the two brave souls in First with their Second Class tickets didn't even have to pay extra to sit there. Happy Christmas!

I wonder if those two people will learn from the experience and do it again next time they travel by train. They say once you try First you never go back to Second - and because you're allowed to upgrade on the train if there's room in First - with the added bonus possibility of not always actually having to pay - I can't see any reason why they wouldn't.

Except for the fact that We Don't Travel First.

I wonder if my loud proclamations on the station platform at Birmingham were my subconscious talking. I wonder if, even now, I feel the need to explain why I've risen above my station (pun intended) and moved from my place in Second, up into somebody else's First Class seat. I may be the equivalent of upper middle class in classless NZ (if that makes any sense), but in England, maybe I'll always be middle middle, and therefore never truly be entitled to travel First.

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