A Dutch-born executive of Stena Line got into huge trouble for describing British sailors as "quite fat", "covered in tattoos", and "not fit for the job". He was, of course, disgracefully guilty of national stereotyping, as he was forced to recognise. But I found myself making similar snap judgements on the way to Glasgow.
The train was so full that I failed to appreciate until afterwards the utter miracle of passing through Crewe without stopping or changing. The press of people also obscured the panoramic views of Cumbria, so I wasn't in the best frame of mind. But it did seem to me that the proportion of people looking generally unhealthy and unkempt, and specifically wearing greying T-shirts and stained tracksuit bottoms, and yelling into their mobiles and not controlling needy children, grew as we approached our destination. Indeed, after Carlisle, they seemed to constitute the overwhelming majority.
They weren't just noisy, but quite rude and physical with it. Oh yes, and the women looked like myriad ageing versions of Lulu. Then again, they were quite outstandingly considerate. The very same people I was silently so rude about practically competed to help me with my case, welcome me to Glasgow, tell me where to get the bus and even, when I had the wrong change, pay the fare. Strangely – or perhaps not – those first impressions stayed with me the three days I was there. Collectively a disaster; individually as open and welcoming as you could wish.
Still, I was disappointed. Glasgow has been showered with praise since it surprised and delighted visitors as European City of Culture in 1990. Certainly, much public (taxpayers') money has been spent, and I'm sure there have been huge changes for the better. But if Glasgow is competing, as it is, with cities all over the world, there are improvements it could make.
Even close to the centre, it's not a particularly walkable city; it's criss-crossed with dual carriageways and you hunt high and low, and often in vain, for any indication as to the street name. On Sauchiehall Street, pedestrianised through the city centre, you have to search for any indication that you are in Glasgow, or even in Scotland. This major thoroughfare is like any other British chain-dominated high street – except in one respect. When I strolled down it just before six in the evening, practically every shop, even the betting shop, was closed. Pubs and clubs may spring into life later, but in the early evening there was no reason to hang around.
Which brings me to a particular beef. Glasgow has built up a whole industry from its association with the currently fashionable Scottish architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And why not? But the Hunterian Museum, which is the main place of pilgrimage for Mackintosh fans, opens Monday to Friday, from 10am to 5pm. And when I say 5pm, I mean they are ostentatiously packing up half an hour beforehand. The clock-watching reminded me of the former Eastern bloc – reliant, like much of this city, on public money.
Given that Glasgow is making much of its desirability as a tourist, academic and conference centre, perhaps it could keep its attractions open a little longer. This might also create some jobs in a city that – despite a reputation for success – could try just a little bit harder.
No need to guess who came to dinner
Bill Clinton popped up in Northern Ireland last week, and the next day he was in Istanbul. In between, though, he made the sort of stopover that distinguishes global superstars from everyone else. He dropped in on Ukraine for dinner, the Crimean resort of Yalta to be precise. Look at the map, and you'll see it makes a sort of sense.
Around 200 of us were seated in a hi-tech marquee in the grounds of the Livadia Palace, where the three powers carved up Europe in 1945. Bill bounded in and delivered with verve what I imagine is his standard dinner spiel around the world. But something else distinguishes global superstars: the ability to understand where they are and who they are speaking to. The former US president has long occupied a special place in Ukrainian hearts, first because he wasn't George Bush senior, who had foolishly advised Ukrainians to reject independence in 1991, and, second, because he instinctively knows how to treat Ukraine as a real nation.
The slight awkwardness came afterwards, when the Russian jazz band left the stage to Ukraine's pop diva. She was quite demurely attired, but not the two well-accoutred young dancers accompanying her – who were in hotpants and thigh-length boots. They were also brunettes, not entirely unlike a certain young lady whose name begins with M. I caught a Scandinavian diplomat rolling his eyes as he glanced from stage to Clinton and made the connection. It was said that the former president's security detail had a hard job dragging him away. He was two hours late for his Istanbul-bound plane.
A little slice of Britishness
A couple of years ago, on an early morning flight, I was introduced to the BA bacon and egg roll. This all-ersatz Eurotraveller staple became one of the few things I simply refused to eat.
It was on the same flight that I came across a mysterious little envelope in the packet with the napkin, the sugar and the stirrer. Having put it to one side, I became gradually aware that my more experienced neighbours now had little plastic bags on their trays, neatly knotted, where their bacon and egg rolls had been. It dawned that the envelope had a purpose, and my fellow countrymen fulfilled their responsibility with the same zeal and sense of duty that they strip down for airport security without being asked. It was a microcosm of Britishness, but not strictly necessary, I felt.
On BA again this weekend, I was delighted to find the egg and bacon roll replaced by a smaller, but more palatable, ham brioche, and the little plastic bag nowhere to be seen. George Osborne, you are so right: there are cuts that can be for the better.