Brian Viner: 'Uneasy about the free brie and cranberry sandwich, I declined it'

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The Independent Online

As a potential topic for The Moral Maze, or even the court of public opinion, my tangle with a ticket inspector on the train from Birmingham to Euston on Tuesday is not up there with Tony Blair's decision to take us to war, or even Fabio Capello's decision on whether or not to sack John Terry.

On the other hand, it is perhaps more relevant to ordinary, everyday life. Here's what happened. I boarded the midday Virgin Trains service at Birmingham International, with a standard return ticket, and found myself in a first-class compartment. I duly started making my way down the train to standard class, but as I was dragging a large, heavy case, had a heck of a job getting past the two trolleys – one bearing drinks, the other food – being pushed along the aisle.

After much pardon me-ing, and a generous spot of reversing by the woman in charge of the food trolley, I carried on down the train, only to realise that I was going the wrong way; standard class was at the other end.

So rather than run the gauntlet of the trolleys again, I sat down, resolving to wait for the ticket inspector and either pay for an upgrade, or, if it was too steep – and in my experience, without too much exaggeration, first-class upgrades on Britain's railways can cost anything between £15 and £1,650,417 – relocate to a standard-class carriage.

So there I sat in a near-empty first-class carriage, cheerfully tapping away on my laptop. Then the trolley service arrived, but without having upgraded I was uneasy about availing myself of a free brie and cranberry sandwich, or even a banana, so I declined. Fifteen minutes later, however, the trolleys rattled by again. This time I succumbed and had a bottle of still water.

Then, 54 minutes into the journey, the inspector turned up.

I gave him my ticket. "So you'll be wanting an upgrade, sir," he said, in what seemed to me – although of course you only have my word for this – a decidedly truculent manner. I asked how much the upgrade would cost, so he did some tapping into his machine and said it would be £79.

In that case, I said, I would move to a standard carriage.

"But you've already been on the train for an hour," he said. Except to quibble over six minutes, there was no arguing with that.

I didn't say anything, just gathered my stuff together. "You'll have to pay for the free food and drink you've had," he added, and by now even an impartial United Nations observer would have identified an aggressive tone.

"Of course," I said. "But all I've had is a bottle of water." He did some more calculating, then told me I owed £10.

"Ten pounds for a bottle of water?" I said, which was enough to make him snap. "I'll tell you what, sir," he said, "I'll arrange for someone to meet us at Euston and we can sort it out there."

And off he marched, clutching my return ticket, and leaving me with my mouth opening and shutting, like a goldfish.

Anyway, I expected him to find me before we arrived at Euston, so that he could personally hand me over to the British Transport Police, or perhaps Special Branch. I was almost looking forward to arguing my case.

But he didn't appear, so I got off the train and waited on the platform for a while. Nobody came, so I left, prepared to risk seeing CCTV footage of myself on Crimewatch, and five hours later bought myself a £49.60 single for the journey home. And that's it. An odd, slightly unpleasant little episode, and I still don't know whether I was in the right or the wrong. Over to you, Sir John Chilcot.

Last week I shared my mis- givings about the social kiss, the constant uncertainty over whether to plant one peck or two.

And then, just two days later, came the most public example I have ever seen of the one-kiss or two-kiss conundrum. It happened at the end of the Australian Open women's tennis final, when the winner, Serena Williams, moved forward on the podium to receive the congratulations of some fellow in a blazer.

She kissed him on one cheek, then tentatively moved in on the second cheek, only to find that he'd turned away. Tennis legend she might be, but at cheek-pecking she's no surer than the rest of us.

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