Tom Sutcliffe: All together in the same train carriage

Social Studies: First-class travel isn't a perk – they insist – it's an aid to operating efficiency
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The Independent Online

For quite a while now my own longstanding image of elite insulation has been the sole of John Major's shoe. I don't know what they look like these days but the sole I have in mind belonged to him when he was Prime Minister and was inadvertently flashed at by the television cameras as he climbed into an official car in Downing Street. And what was remarkable about it was how shiny and unmarked it was. It's possible, of course, that he'd only just bought the shoes or that – in a touch consistent with his satirised punctiliousness – he dutifully polished the soles once a week.

But the more likely explanation seemed to be that they barely ever encountered pavement. This was a man who moved from one thickly carpeted space to another in a chaffeur-driven car. He didn't wait for buses in the rain or wander along gum-spattered platforms, scuffing the sheen from his footwear. I found myself thinking of John Major's unblemished sole when I read that among the austerity measures proposed by the Government is the plan to dock civil servants' entitlement to first-class rail travel, a gesture which isn't going to do a lot to right the nation's gravely unbalanced books (it'll only save £10m) but which does send a vague message of universal conscription. If this is a war, it suggests, the top brass will at least go through the motions of visiting the trenches and getting mud on their boots.

Thinking about it I was a bit startled to find that we still had first-class anyway – not because I was unaware of those temptingly underpopulated carriages you have to walk past before you're allowed to board a train, but because you might have expected a euphemistic name change by now, along the lines of China's "soft and hard" seats. Nobody would dream of marketing a second-class ticket anymore, after all – democratic egalitarianism having put paid to the concept. But if there's a first there must be a second, and possibly even a third.

That's partly what you're paying for obviously – the notion that you are first-class as well – not just (bog) standard. And the fact that there is no real connection between the advantages you secure and the price being paid for it is immaterial – particularly because there's often no connection between what's being paid for it and your own wallet. I doubt that civil servants would acknowledge this because elites of any kind are usually exceptionally adept at re-framing privilege as necessity. First-class travel isn't a perk – they insist – it's an aid to operating efficiency, though it occurs to you that this would only be genuinely true if the seats were a lot less comfortable and there were no interruptions for the laying of table linen and the delivery of a full English breakfast.

And there is another cost – which doesn't appear in the accounts at all. The more that senior administrators are insulated from the realities of everyday life, the lousier those realities are likely to be. The quickest way of improving public transport would be to ensure that it isn't only the public who have to use it. (Some will have rejoiced when MPs lost their entitlement to first-class travel out of sheer punitive glee; I rejoiced because the ranks of disgruntlement had been swollen by some articulate and well-connected new recruits).

Even first-class gets better under such arrangements, since it can't rely so much on the reflexive self-segregation of a governing class – which is easy money frankly. On a similar note, David Cameron's insistence on walking to the House of Commons from 10 Downing Street might just be gesture politics – but it's the right kind of gesture, a modest acknowledgement that the gap between ordinary life and political life should diminish, not get wider. We'll have to have a shoe inspection in a couple of years time to see how serious his resolve really is.

Hamilton lost control of the story, not his car

Intriguing to see that the technical charge against Lewis Hamilton for a bit of boy racer flashiness after the Melbourne grand prix is "intentionally losing control of a vehicle". He's lost control of a vehicle quite a few times unintentionally it's true – but then that's only to be expected when you're balancing a F1 car on a knife-edge of traction for nearly two hours. But the idea that he had no idea where he or his Mercedes was going to end up because he spun his rear wheels for a couple of seconds on driving out of the circuit is richly implausible. "Controlling a car so that it appears to be out of control" would have been an easy case to prove. "Silliness" and "over-exuberance" he's already informally pleaded guilty to in interviews. But "losing control"? If he had any interest in contesting the case (which he doesn't) I think even I could get him off.

An impressive river of violas

I visited the Chelsea Flower Show the other day – several days before its official opening, and at a time when it bore more resemblance to a very badly run garden centre than a showcase of cutting-edge garden design. For me a garden is essentially a room that untidies itself, so I'm not really the target audience for this fixture of the English season – or its arcane snobberies about "in" and "out" plants.

But I absolutely loved Gateshead council's exhibit – which incorporated a humungous model of half of the Tyne Bridge densely planted with a river of violas. This, it turned out, was an attempt (very successful I have to say) to reconstruct the Great North Run in bedding plants – and it made a delightful case for the unfashionable pleasures of municipal planting. There is a fine line in these things though. A nearby stand displayed an RAF Chinook helicopter, partially crafted out of alpine succulents, a genuinely unsettling combination of the natural and the man-made. Even when you turn your back on taste, you really should do it tastefully.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk



For further reading: Royal Horticultural Society: www.rhs.org.uk

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