It all started as normal with a flight out of Shanghai, I'm not sure how long it will be before the ground staff actually think I work at the airport? But the fact that I'm known by my first name to the check-in girls, the security and immigration staff, as well as the car park attendants - sort of gives you an idea of how often I use the bloody place? This journey in fact started before arriving at the airport, because i had to visit the office on my way (on a Sunday) to pick up my driving license, that for some reason I had left there, and knew I would need to hire a car when in the UK.
Like some drug crazed, addictive spell, Virgin Atlantic was my weapon of choice, to show just how much I have become obsessed with this airline, I have my own seat - yes thats right, seat 16A is mine, no debate, no alternative is acceptable, seat 16A has been my home for longer than I can remember, and longer than most mortgages I have had. I even wrote to Virgin to ask if they would gift me the seat due to the fact that I have spent so much time trying to get comfortable in it, whilst finding it funny they refused even to sell me the seat, which is a shame as I would have put it into the spare room at home and insist visitors slept in it - at least this way they wouldn't stay long and definitely wouldn't return :)
The flight itself was fine, well as fine as sitting in a elongated tube of poisonous air at 40,000 feet for 13 hours can be. Even the extraction at Heathrow went without a hitch, I should have know it was all too good to be true as I entered the Avis car rental office. You see, as an habitual traveller and renter of cars, I am considered a 'privileged' or 'preferred' customer, which gives me special discounts and 'offers' as well as a fast track service designed to reduce the waiting time and paperwork synomninous with hiring a car. However this time would be different, having to drive an uninspiring black box at an average of 20 kph in Shanghai, means that when I am in other countries I like to hire something a bit more interesting, sporty or luxurious. My car of choice this time was an Audi A5 Convertible that I had got at the same price as a Ford Mondeo. I had paid in advance, and even knew the registration of the car that would be me chariot for the next 5 days in Europe. That was before I met Nick, Nick was the pimple faced Asda shirt and tie wearing dip shit, who would decide to piss off a loyal Avis customer of 18 years, following a 20+ hour journey to his small desk of responsibility.
I had spent more hours in this particular rental office, than Nick had been in long trousers, I knew the pattern of the wallpaper, the loose pavement stone near to bay B6 and that the drinks dispenser only worked on a Thursday of months with an 'R' in them. Still he had decided that the recent training course he had been on meant that he was up to dealing with me on the same level. Of course to my detriment he had me over a barrel, you see what I didn't know was that the little plastic identification card issued by the UK driver license department expired at a more regular rate than the standard paper copy which lasts up until your 70th birthday. My argument that I had my paper license, had hired vehicles 4 times from the very same office since my license had expired, all fell on deaf ears. A 'jobs-worth' of immense proportions, there was no way I would be traveling in anything other than my size 11 shoes from the office in Heathrow. Appealing to a better judgement or looking for a decision of someone more senior got me nowhere, well in fact it got me to the hotel across the street, once I had decided that pulverising his brain would only serve to rid the world of one more dick head, but still not result in me being able to hire a car.
This small issue led to a week of reliance on public transport, I had 6 cities to visit in as many days, 3 airports, 4 train stations and 5 different hotels. Of course I could have tried to blag a car from another rental agency, but the prospect of someone else telling me I wasn't good enough to hire a Fiat 127 for a few days got the better of me, and I thought my public transport project would be, er fun - how wrong can a person be?
You see in China, you can sit on a train which is less guaranteed to be less than 3 years old, travels at 350 kph for 4-5 hours and will cost you as little as £10, pay a couple of RMB more and you get a foot massage, free wifi and a pet kitten to take home. You get used to trains arriving not only being on time, but in exactly the same spot as marked on the platform floor, being clean, serviced by delightful, bi-lingual, Chinese versions of 1970's Pan Am air hostesses. The story in the UK is not quite the same.
Let me give you this scenario, your a visitor to London, a self professed international capital city in the same league as New York, Paris, Singapore or god forbid Shanghai. You have heard the Taxi's are horrendously expensive, so you decide to catch the train to the 2nd largest city in the country - Birmingham, some 100 miles away. First of all you can't get a direct train, you first need to travel and transfer in central London, which is where a service calling itself the 'London Express' comes into play, banners across Heathrow exclaim 15 miles in 15 minutes as if its some kind of flux capacitor speed of light time machine. 15 miles in 15 minutes is 60 miles per hour - Bamboo grows faster than that! The cost works out at about £1 per mile, which would have been acceptable if it took you anywhere you needed to be, before getting excited that you are finally on your way, you then need to transfer across to Euston Station which means traversing the vampire and werewolf infested underground system with your 50kgs of luggage or obtaining a 2nd mortgage on your house to pay for a Taxi. Which will save you humping your luggage up and down vertical stairways, but will leave you with no money to pay for the final train to your destination. A ticket in standard class to a city just 90 minutes away was £145, 1st class where they had seats designed for more than just one buttock was £250+. The whole journey would have taken 2 to 2.5 hours in a car, got you to the door of where you wanted to go, and provided luxury comfort for 4-5 people plus luggage.
The British government suggests it wants to get people off the roads and onto public transport - at those prices a journey for a family of 4 people would have cost the best part of £1000, or the same price as a soggy cheese sandwich on one of the trains. I am all for getting people off the roads - it will leave more room for me, but given the inconvenience and costs, I think its a long time from becoming reality, i hope that anyone visiting for the Olympics next year realises to bring an up to date driving license or several bars of gold bullion.