Sunday, 30 October 2011

Casino Banking - Why the protesters are wrong

Capitalism, also called free market economy, or free enterprise economy:  economic system, dominant in the Western world since the breakup of feudalism, in which most of the means of production are privately owned and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets.
Although the continuous development of capitalism as a system dates only from the 16th century, antecedents of capitalist institutions existed in the ancient world, and flourishing pockets of capitalism were present during the later European Middle Ages.”
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There are of course many definitions of capitalism, but the above, extracted from the on-line Encyclopaedia Britannica, is as good as any.  Basically, what it says is that from time immemorial, this world has been largely capitalist, with a minority of people getting rich on the back of the (relatively) poor majority’s efforts.  It also suggests by its longevity that, for all its faults, the system actually works and is the best option for the human race.  Should this really be a surprise?  What alternatives are there (or perhaps more correctly have there been)?
Well….Communism obviously.  Nope.  It failed, but not until after nearly a century of imposing poverty on vast swathes of the human race in the old USSR and elsewhere.  Nowadays, there are still a few outposts that operate a form of Communism – Cuba, China and Venezuela spring immediately to mind – but even here it is not pure Communism, but rather a curious hybrid of Communist ideals financed by increasingly capitalistic mechanisms.   Without its oil revenues, Chavez’s Venezuela would be even more bankrupt than it already is (for all its wealth there is widespread poverty).  Cuba, since Fidel stepped out of the limelight, is relaxing its authoritarian ways and welcoming investment from outside, albeit on a limited basis right now, but is still an incredibly poor country.  China is probably more capitalist than Communist now, despite having a one-party system, and the second biggest economy in the world, the largest holder of US and Euro-denominated Government debt in the world (to the extent that the US Treasury Secretary and various European Finance Ministers and Presidents are cultivating strong ties with China that even 10 years ago would not have been countenanced, never mind encouraged).  As a system, Communism always looked good on paper, but the reality was always totally different – probably as a result of simple human nature.  Fact is, there will always be the Haves and the Have Not’s.   This has been true throughout history, and I have no doubt always will be true.  Look at these Communist societies: was there ever a poor First Secretary in the USSR (and I’m not talking about their origins which were often peasant poor, but how they lived and ended their lives)?   Castro and his brother and successor came from a comfortably well-off, middle class family and were professionally qualified lawyers.  Mao may have started off a penniless peasant but ended up running the biggest (by population) Communist society of the lot, and had no money worries to speak of – nor have his descendants, I’m sure.  So Communism is probably the biggest con trick ever, and was always going to fall apart when people started seeing through all the dogma and realize that there was no equality at all, no matter what their Beloved Leader or whoever may insist to the contrary.
Then there is Barter.  Basically, I’ve got a lot of this, and need some of what you have – care to do a swap?  Now there is a system that has lasted for thousands of years and still exists to this day (as any school kid trying to complete a Panini World Cup sticker collection will tell you), but as a means of supporting a global economy it can never ever work – because it can never ever achieve the scale needed to support a global system.  Besides which, how do you price it?  There are dozens of bankrupt, poverty ridden and drought stricken countries in Africa and elsewhere that do not have enough food and water to support their starving populations.  What can they possibly offer in exchange for these necessities from their more fortunate neighbours in a barter system?  Nothing.  They would have to rely on the same charitable handouts they do now, except that nations would be giving over tons of food or gallons of water rather than hard cash – and would they actually do that, if it left room for possible shortages in their own countries?  No – because, cynic that I am, I believe that human nature says look after yourself first and everybody else second.  Is that a selfish attitude to take?  Certainly – but it’s also the one that most people take, including those who are prolific in their charitable donations.  Face facts: if you are faced with the choice of giving your last fiver to Oxfam or providing a pressing medical need for your son, who gets the money?  Barter can only work when there is a clear and unambiguous exchange value – say a Wayne Rooney sticker for a Christiano Ronaldo.  But when relative values are to be applied, it gets much much harder – how do you assess the exchange rate of say a ton of feathers?  If you are a manufacturer of down mattresses then I’m sure you’d be happy to pay something for it, but to an African farmer it’s worthless.   So no, barter is fine in a limited sense but as a global financial system it is useless – which is why it metamorphosed into capitalism in the first place, probably.
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The point is that the world is different now.  Barter worked when it was mainly carried out between tribes or families in a small space – a single valley perhaps, or on the shores of a small lake.  You didn’t have to move things far to do the trade for a start – into your next door neighbour’s garden perhaps.  But as “society” spread and expanded and distances became greater (and hence communication slower and harder) the system started to change, as tribes grouped themselves together and started to form “countries” then the system started changing too – it had to.   Because one thing about countries and their populations is that they tend to have distinct characteristics – take the USA and Canada, for instance.  Next door to each other, share a border thousands of miles long, and populated largely by emigrants from the same parts of the world (primarily Europe).  And yet they are completely different.  The accents, whilst similar, are distinct from each other.  Their systems of government differ.  Their values certainly differ.  If someone were to kidnap you and take you there, unconscious or in a closed, windowless plane all the way, you would know which country you were in straight away.   So because they differ, and their values differ, their needs differ to, and so the barter system begins to break down.
Over thousands of years, as mankind spread across the world, from valley to valley then from country to country, changing all the time, new ways of life emerged, and new economic systems to support them.  And barter became capitalism, via feudalism.  That’s how it has remained.  Communism offered an alternative to this, and in a world where travel between countries was slow and relatively rare, and communication equally primitive, it was to many an attractive alternative, because people were often unaware of conditions in the next county let alone another country or the other side of the world.   The rise of the popular press and the advent of radio and tv and film started to change all that, and give even the poorest people a window on the world.  And advances in travel – better and more efficient road and rail networks,  faster and bigger ships, and in the last 100 years the extraordinarily rapid development of an air transport infrastructure and telecommunications network (especially since World War 2) have changed the game in a way that Marx and Lenin could never have imagined.  
Inevitably, Communism ended, and people in countries that had been locked into a decidedly unfair system for decades found themselves having to adjust to another equally unfair system – but one that at least held out the opportunity of making shed loads of money if you worked hard (or just got lucky).  Ask Abramovich or any other oligarch whether they would prefer to be living in early 21st Century capitalist Russia or late 20th Century Communist Russia and I am sure they would all vote for the present over the past.  As would most ordinary Russian citizens.  Not only Russians either: living in Warsaw for 10 years now as Poland has moved, reasonably successfully and smoothly, from a communist economy to a capitalist society I have seen much change.  There are of course still poor areas and inequality, even within the city itself never mind the whole country, but by and large everyone is much happier and better off than they were 10 years ago, or in the bad old days.  There is a sense of optimism throughout the country (the only EU state that did not dip into recession over the past couple of years of financial crises) that is shared by people in other countries like Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia and so on, sharing the same journey.
So clearly, as we approach a global population of 7 billion (sometime this week according to the UN) the world is a different place.  In my opinion the biggest change in the last century – perhaps in the entire history of the human race – is the explosion in telecommunications and the internet.  That, even more than safe, fast and frequent air travel, has enabled a truly global market to develop and with it a global economy.  Markets in money, in stocks and shares, in commodities like oil and gold and precious metals, in basic foodstuffs like grain and rice and vegetable oils, in cars and consumer goods, in clothes and entertainments like music and movies and books, are now linked as never before.  There is no longer a single place to go and buy any goods now: you can literally go onto the web and buy your new 3D tv at the best price including shipping costs from anywhere in the world, often easier than finding it in your local high street or shopping mall.
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So to support this interlinked global market, banking services have had to change too.   The high street bank no longer supports a limited number of customers with a limited number of services, mainly around providing cheque clearing and savings facilities, as they did a generation ago.  Nowadays even the smallest retail bank is expected to be able to provide global investment opportunities to a more discerning customer base.  Fail to do that and the bank itself fails.  Capitalism, right?  Survival of the fittest and (yes) most profitable.
So banks have grown, by a combination of merger and acquisition so that only the biggest and strongest can offer the truly global reach needed to service this new economy.  Not only do they service individual customers like you and me, but also the more (I hesitate to use the word) intelligent investor – the professional investors like pension funds, whose requirements are not so different from what I look for in my bank, but on a much bigger scale.  So to do this properly, they have to invest their own capital to drive the markets, and because it is a global market the sums are huge, beyond the comprehension of most ordinary people. 
They also grease the wheels of governments too.   All governments raise additional money from this market, because by themselves tax revenues will never be sufficient to finance all the work and policies that governments the world over need to follow to provide for their citizens.   So what is nowadays disparagingly referred to as “casino banking” developed.  In my day, relatively recently, it was highly respected and called investment banking, and any school or college leaver who wanted to work for a bank wanted it to be an investment bank.  Much more glamorous and yes, better rewarded.  All the major high street banks developed their investment arms, spending huge amounts of capital to do so, but against that generally made a significant return.  The investment banks are as important to the retail banks as they are to the rest of the investment community, because without them retail banking costs would be higher.  To take a simple example: the excess funds in any bank branch are placed in the overnight lending market to earn a bit of interest, some of which is passed back to you and I as interest on our funds in our deposit account, a bit more used to reduce the rate of interest that would be charged should our current account be overdrawn, and a chunk more taken as profit.  This market is controlled by the local central bank and is solely the preserve of banks – which is why it’s called the interbank market.  Without it, the supply of money to you and I as interest or personal loans or  mortgages very quickly dries up, and you’ve taken the first step on the road to recession.  It is critical to the global economy , and the most basic form of investment (or if you prefer casino) banking.
Goverments take similar measures on a massive scale, billions of dollars or pounds or euros a day.  As I said above, tax revenues never match government expenditure on things like education, or health care, or unemployment benefit or defence.  So they too use the casino banks to cover the shortfall.  This has been true for years, and after World War 2 most of Europe was highly indebted to the US, who as the world’s richest nation, had pretty much funded the war in one way or another.  This is still the case today, when you think about it.   Some countries are better at playing this system than others, of course: the US are past master and practically invented the system by introducing the Treasury bond market (a blueprint pretty much copied throughout the world as a means of raising additional government finance).  The Germans too have maintained a strong economy through judicious use of the market, as have the UK, France and to lesser extent Italy.  The Scandinavians too have been and continue to be consistently successful users.  But elsewhere, many nations, particularly in Central and South America, have tried to follow suit and for a variety of reasons not made such a good fist of things and ended up defaulting (i.e. going bust – think Mexico, Argentina, Brazil….).  Greece is in that state now – not because it has particularly extended itself – its outstanding debt is less than compatriots like Italy, Spain and Portugal – but because it is bloody useless at collecting its taxes.  Greek friends tell me of rich areas in Athens where only 6 taxable swimming pools out of a total in existence of several thousand in back gardens have been properly declared, and an island in the Cyclades where 80% of the population is registered blind……tax avoidance is an art form and a way of life.

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The point of all the foregoing is that capitalism, as a system, is not intrinsically wrong, and that in reality there is no real alternative to it at present.   The protesters currently camped in London’s St.Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, or marching from Brooklyn to Wall Street, or demonstrating outside the Greek Parliament have all basically got it wrong, if they are only complaining about “greedy bankers” or “inefficient government”, or the “capitalist system destroying all our lives” – as seem to be the most common and strident complaints.   So has any government, including the US and Britain, who seem intent on blaming the entire global financial crisis on a relatively small number of people (the banks) and legislating them out of existence.  These governments are also grossly hypocritical, given the frequency with which they go cap in hand to those same bankers to bail them out when they get their departmental sums wrong.
I am not saying that all investment bankers are as pure as the driven snow – having spent my entire working life, over 40 years, in the industry in one form or another, I know that is most definitely not the case.  But tarring them all with the same brush is manifestly unfair and just plain wrong.  They can be excessively well paid but when the pressure the average trader works under on any given day is taken into account, then to my way of thinking if they are successful then they deserve it.  Like all salesmen they are mostly working on commission, with targets set by the week, the month, the quarter and by the year.  If those targets aren’t met, there are no commiserations, and rarely a better luck next time – there is usually the P45 and the dole queue awaiting. It can be a brutal world and the price of failure is high: so why should the rewards not be equally high for the successful?  If a guy has spent a year sitting in front of a bank of computer screens, 12 hours or more a day, absorbing the volatility in the market then investing on his intuitive reading of the signs (I do hate the term “betting” for this activity) and at the end of the year has been largely successful and has generated several million pounds (or billions) in profit for his employer, then to reward him with a pat on the back and a five grand bonus – as some would have us believe is right and proper – is frankly more obscene than giving him a pat on the back and a five hundred grand bonus.  Doing that does not necessarily mean the guy is going to take bigger risks to achieve better results, and in any case any bank paying out that kind of money on that kind of profitability will be regulated by the government or whatever agencies manage the industry in their place of business, and hence should have systems in place to prevent that happening.
I accept it doesn’t always work that way.  Back in the 90s Nick Leeson traded incompetently and was poorly supervised and as a result the old and venerable British Bank Baring Brothers no longer exists.  I happen to know well the bloke who hired Leeson for Barings, as a clerk, and he was as surprised as anyone else when Leeson not only got a break on the Singapore trading desk but proceeded to screw up to the extent he did.  My mate’s opinion of Leeson was that he was a nice enough bloke, but  nothing special, and that it was entirely the bank’s fault that he was inadequately trained and supervised – in effect, they brought the mess on the themselves.  In the last couple of years there have been similar instances at Societe Generale and UBS, where multi-billion dollar losses have been sustained by inadequately trained and poorly supervised dealers, who in both cases have been pilloried in the press and saddled with the entire blame – rather unfairly, in my opinion.  I’ve been caught up in a case where a company, in my case a small private bank, was broken as a result of poor trading activity: the result was that 40-odd people found themselves out of work one Tuesday lunchtime.  There was nothing illegal about it, nothing even really incompetent, the guy in question had misread a couple of prices, and been unable to foresee a far bigger crisis brewing in one small sector of the market (as had pretty much everyone else in the business) but it was enough to close the door.  There were no hard feelings, then or now: it was accepted by everyone in the industry (not just in our company) that sometimes these things happened.  This was 20 odd years ago now and it hardly merited a headline: were it to happen now there would probably be an outcry and a public enquiry, and our unlucky trader in the dock in both the real and the figurative sense.
Again, none of this makes capitalism wrong or the banking industry as it stands wrong.  It is the way of the world, I’m afraid, survival of the fittest.  Humans are greedy and competitive.  Humans want to succeed and are prepared to take risks to do so.  Banks are in the business of making money, not only for themselves and their shareholders but also for their customers – that’s you and I folks! – and for their respective national governments in corporation and other investment taxes.  In the absence of a viable alternative economic system capable of supporting the global market and the world we live in, capitalism is right – what you see is what you get. 
The undoubtedly sincere but perhaps ill-educated and misguided individuals marching against capitalism and corporate greed and casino banking should consider this and at least present us with an alternative way of life that does not involve trying to turn the clock back five hundred years or so to a feudal society – which is the only way you’re going to bring a full stop to all they consider wrong and evil in modern business.   The chances are that the majority of these protestors are unemployed, for a variety of possibly genuine reaons, and hence are being supported largely through the efforts of the very people they are protesting against.    If they are unable to present an alternative society that does not involve ingesting interesting hebs in vast quantities and keeping your own goats and growing your own food (vegetarian diet mantatory of course) , then they should really be quiet and shuffle off back to where they came from, because to use a football cliché, at the end of the day nothing is going to change as a result of their antics.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Tyrant's Ends

So everyone’s favourite eccentric (make that barking mad) dictator Muammar Gaddafi of Libya came to the sticky end he so richly deserved.  After 40 odd years ruling his country in a fashion that contemporaries like Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe would be proud of, using torture and impromptu execution as statecraft tools to keep his subjects under his complete control, being dragged from a concrete waste pipe on the edge of his home town by an angry mob of those erstwhile subjects was a little, shall we say, ignominious.   The shocking news footage of his bloodied face and body (he had apparently been wounded trying to escape in a convoy with his remaining few supporters) being first dumped in the back of the ubiquitous Toyota HiLux pick-up truck, then dragged back out again by the mob, apparently pleading for mercy, did nothing for his already tarnished image (that’s if his image was ever anything other than shit anyway) and showed him to be like all bullies – a coward, despite all his bombastic broadcasts professing that he would fight to the death and expecting all his followers to do likewise.  When it came right down to it, the bloke was scared shitless.  And it’s probably fair to say most people would be, in the same position.

When it came, the justice handed out by the Libyan freedom fighters was swift and efficient.  Not at all what the families of, for instance, the Lockerbie victims would perhaps have wanted, nor those of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, gunned down outside the Libyan Embassy in London thirty odd years ago by a “diplomat” (I use the term in its broadest sense) inside the building.  Nor the many victims of the Libyan-armed Provisional IRA.  But the chances of him being captured and put on trial in the Hague or Tripoli were always close to zero.  The chances of the trial being fair and impartial were lower still.  From the minute Tripoli fell he was the archetypal Dead Man Walking.  And apart from the few remaining family members, skulking in Algeria, who presumably loved him as a husband, father and grandfather, I doubt anyone will be shedding a tear for the bastard.  
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But watching events unfold on BBC World and Sky News over the past day or so, and seeing this disheveled and terrified monster coming to an end made me reflect on the end of other 20th Century dictators, and I can’t help thinking that although his antics and performance, if I can call it that, while in power were almost comparable to the others, his end will be considered a marked disappointment, should their shades ever meet up on the Other Side and laugh about old times with their mentor, the one and only Lucifer.

As a dictator, despite all his atrocities, he was comparative small fry – although I’m sure anyone who has lived under his rule over the last 40 years might argue that.   Sure, Gaddafi was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, not just in Libya but world-wide through his support of terrorist groups like the Provos and the Golden Path nutters in Peru amongst others.   Sure, he salted away untold millions in cash and property (and I bet a lot of it is in Zurich and other offshore banking centres) while the majority of his subjects lived in abject poverty, with little education and less prospects.   But when you consider the oil wealth at his disposal, financially he doesn’t seem to have done so well.  And he definitely loses marks on the old Sinners Scoreboard for that ignominious end.

Consider his contemporary and, apparently, friend, Saddam Hussein.  Now there was a bastard if ever there was one.  Many of the fun and games he got up to were like Gaddafi, only writ large.  Gaddafi, by and large, shot his victims (or had them shot) – unless of course they were among the terrorist dead, when he could disclaim responsibility with a shrug of his shoulders.  Sometimes there would be a little torture first but still, the gun was his weapon of choice.  He also managed to avoid getting involved in any real wars (apart from the odd bit of sabre rattling that pissed off Reagan enough to send in the F-16s in the 80s).   But Saddam used the lot.  He tested WMD on the Kurds in the north of Iraq, killed tens of thousands and was apparently disappointed with the results.  He engaged in wars against Iran (for nearly 10 years, at a cost apparently of over a million lives in Iraq alone, with a similar number on the Iranian side) and twice against US led coalitions, in the 90s (after invading Kuwait) and in 2003 as part of the War on Terror –hundreds of thousands more dead.  Domestically, his opponents were systematically slaughtered, by a variety of means – shot, hung, tortured to death, beheaded – you name it.  He wasn’t averse to pulling the trigger himself either, as one of his Cabinet found out to his cost once: Saddam didn’t like the man’s point of view, pulled out his gun, shot him in the head, then calmly carried on the meeting with the corpse leaking blood all over the cabinet table, as if nothing untoward had happened.

He made shit loads of money too, most of it taken from oil wealth that exceeded even Libya’s… doubt the Gnomes picked up some decent commission from him too.  And again, his people lived mostly in poverty.  The last war against the US led coalition did for him – as a military campaign it was text book and took down the regime in a matter of weeks (the aftermath tragically has been a complete mess, but that’s for another time).   Like Gaddafi he disappeared for some months, before being captured in an odd parallel hiding in a drainage pipe on the edge of his home town.  But unlike Gaddafi, he survived capture (probably as he was found by disciplined US troops rather than an unruly and angry mob of Iraqis), with the classic line “I am Saddam Hussein and I wish to negotiate.”  Classy.

He was put on trial, in Iraq, and by and large it was fair and above board.  He was of course found guilty (was there ever a doubt that would happen?) and sentenced to death by hanging.  There were appeals of course (can’t think of any criminal case where there aren’t appeals – wish I was a lawyer!) but in the end sentence was carried out.   Footage of his execution found its way onto the internet and the tv news channels in an edited version, and the contrast with Gaddafi could not be more stark.  A door opens, and Saddam is led through, dressed in grey trousers, a white open necked shirt and black overcoat, his hands tied.  He is perfectly calm and walks across to stand on the trapdoor, where he inspects the noose with a professional eye.  He asks if the knot has been properly tied and tested, and is assured it has.  The rope is placed around his neck and someone goes to place a bag over his head.  He pushes them away and insists he does not need the hood as he wants to “look into the eyes of my executioners.”  That is the end of the footage but reports say he was completely impassive and staring at the audience even as the trapdoor opened and his neck snapped.    Whether he was at that point brave or demented I have no idea, but I confess to a sneaking admiration for it……..the man was a total psychopath and a monster, but made a hell of an ending for himself.

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Then there was Corporal Hitler.

He did pretty well in the Dictator Stakes.  Even before World War 2 he had been directly responsible for thousands of deaths, mainly of Jews as he attempted to clear them from Germany.  The Luftwaffe’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, where it practiced bombing techniques later used during the Blitz in the UK and elsewhere, took care of thousands more.  With the invasion and annexation of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Sudetenland and Poland the numbers mounted impressively, and continued to do so during the march westward through Belgium, the Netherlands and France, as well as Norway, Denmark and Finland.  With Barbarossa in 1941 aiming at Russia and, of course, the Final Solution he really got into his stride and the numbers went from the tens of thousands, through the hundreds and quickly into the millions.  Impressive stuff.  He wasn’t a big one for personal gain – Goering was better at that, confiscating millions of dollars-worth of treasure from all over Europe – but with the entire wealth of Europe at his personal disposal I suppose he didn’t really need to nick a lot of stuff.  Not much business for UBS there then.

The end came of course in 1945, by which time the tactical and oratorical genius had turned into a raving lunatic, holed up in a cellar in Berlin as the Russians advanced from the East and the Americans and British from the West.    His end, while not on a par with Saddam, was still pretty good.  After dishing out a bunch of medals to plainly terrified child soldiers, he said auf wiedersehen pet to his staff, retired to his bedroom with his bride of 24 hours Ewa Braun where she took a draft of poison that killed her.  Then he shot himself.  For fifty years no-one had a clue what happened to his body and there were conflicting reports – it had been burned in the back garden with Ewa’s was one theory, another said he hadn’t died at all but had managed to sneak out through the back door and escaped to Paraguay where he had lived happily under an assumed name was another (wonderfully sent up by Monty Python, who had him living in a boarding house in Minehead, Somerset, under the name of Mr.Hilter).   It took the fall of Communism and all that accompanied it to solve the riddle – it seems his remains were commandeered by the Russians, who were first into the bunker, and spirited away to Moscow and a box in the basement of the KGB Headquarters, where they remained until 1970 before being burned and the ashes scattered.

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And the fourth monster, the Original Poison Dwarf, Joseph Stalin?

 No-one is quite sure how many people he disposed of over his thirty odd years at the top of the Soviet Greasy Pole, but it is undoubtedly in the millions, what with the various pogroms, the gulag exiles and various wars, not to mention those who simply died of starvation during “collectivization” of agriculture.  Some estimates put the total at in excess of 15million.  Another man of simple pleasures (most of which involved killing people and inventing new and interesting ways of doing so in the name of the State) he again didn’t run up obscene wealth, but merely used the wealth of the entire USSR to keep him fed and clothed and virtually bankrupting the place in doing so.

His end, in contrast to the other three, was a decided anti-climax – he lived to a comparatively ripe old age and died in the comfort of his own bed, apparently of a stroke (although there are rumours he was given a draft of a flavourless rat poison that brought this on).  At the time, he was still considered – at least in the West – as a bit of hero, given the decisive role Russian forces had played in winning World War 2, despite the hundreds of thousands of troops and innocent civilians slaughtered by them.  Dissenting voices like Churchill’s were relatively few and far between.  It took Khrushchev’s so called Secret Speech at the 1956 Communist Party Congress, where he revealed Stalin’s excesses, condemned them and removed him from the ranks of Soviet Heroes, before the wider world became aware of just what had been going on – although the unfortunates living behind the Iron Curtain had been aware of it all for years.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

This Sporting Life: Pushy Parents and the Demise of the England team

I’ve always been a football man.  Oh, and cricket in the summer.  I tried rugby and tennis and athletics (they were mandatory at my senior school) but they never captured my imagination really.  In fact, I was humiliated in all three before the age of 12.

At rugby, I played hooker for my house, as I was a biggish kid – this meant I was the poor sod in the middle of the front row of the scrum that was always flattened when it collapsed.  You can always tell hookers by their flattened noses, puffy eyebrows and cauliflower ears, the legacy of many years of such battering.  They’re usually fat bastards too.  Anyway, I hooked for my house.  We were playing one of the other houses in the First Year rugby tournament.  I was 11.  It was a tough game and the kid who was playing hooker for the other side – and hence my direct opponent at every scrum – was bigger than me.   His dad also was a rugby man, and had brought his son up in the same way.   He had taught this kid some of the dark arts of the scrum – how to gouge the eye, for instance, or nut your opponent hard when you pack down.  I was having a pretty rough time.  I decided to get my own back a bit, and the next time we packed down brought my knee up to rake the bugger’s shin with my studs.  I hoped to shred his sock and draw blood.  I drew blood alright – my own.  I managed to knee myself in the mouth and split my lip.  I have never seen so much blood in all my life – it was a positive gusher.  Of course, my opponent and everyone else on the pitch, including the teacher refereeing the match, pissed themselves laughing.

I never played rugby again.

Tennis was little better.  Come the spring, after my lip had healed, I decided to have a go at the game.  I had an old wooden racquet that my sister had given me, and used to knock around with friends in the road outside my house.  It’s only slapping a ball back and forth across a net, I thought – can’t be that hard.  So I entered the school tournament, and drew a kid who, it transpired, was a keen player and went to a club with his parents regularly.  But I didn’t know that when we strolled out on court one sunny spring morning, and I still harboured expectations of winning the match.  12 minutes and a 6-0 6-0 hammering sorted that idea out.

End of tennis career.

So athletics.  Worst of the lot, I’m afraid.  I could run a bit, sprints anyway.  I was ok at the long jump and the high jump.  I tried the shot and discus and got on ok.  So I was enjoying it when school sports day came around.  I entered the long jump, the 400m and the 110m sprint, and had high hopes of winning at least one of them.  The 110m was first.  I lined up and off we went.  Coming off the bend I was handily placed, second I think, so I accelerated, the tape and glory in my sights.  The sprint lasted 2 strides.  Then a terrific pain in the back of my thigh told me the muscle had gone.  I yelped in agony (blimey, it was painful!) and instead of breaking the tape with my chest I watched the field disappear in the distance as I hopped around in a circle, clutching my leg and cursing in a way no 11 year old should.  For a moment there was silence, then all 600 boys and thirty odd teachers watching the race started laughing….not quietly and respectfully, but roaring with near hysteria.  God, I felt such a prat – I would have been happy for the ground to have opened up and swallow me.

So end of athletics.

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So I concentrated on those quintessential English games of football and cricket.

Over the years I was reasonably successful and ended up quite good.  In football, I played for the school team, my local under 16s team, and after that the club’s senior side (in fact I started playing for them at 15).  When I left school I played for my company’s team as well.  So on a typical week I would play Saturday afternoon for my local club, Sunday morning for my company team, training on Mondays and Wednesdays for the local club and Tuesdays for my company team, and 5-a-side for them on Thursdays.  So Friday was my night off, to be spent in a pub or nightclub somewhere.  I was drinking heavily and smoking maybe 20 Marlboro every day – but I was fitter than at any time in my life.  I won a few pots, had a lot of laughs, broke my nose a couple of times and either broke or dislocated all my fingers,  and gave it all up at 25 when my eldest son was born – being an attentive father seemed more important than kicking a ball around at weekends.  Later, when my kids grew up and started playing themselves, I made sure I went to as many of their matches as I could, and ended up coaching my eldest boys’ team for a couple of years.   I thoroughly enjoyed it and miss it terribly, now I’m older and (it has to be said!) less active.

I was ok at cricket too.  I used to keep wicket quite adequately, batted reasonably solid as an opener but without scoring loads of runs, and tried my hand successfully at bowling too, in my last season – I only played half of it, and in not enough matches to be included in the season’s overall figures, but even so I topped the “unofficial” bowling averages for the whole season – one more match and I would have won an “official” award for that.  So the only thing I ever won was a single wicket competition at the club, and that was more by luck than judgement.  Very social game, cricket.  Two games a weekend, both lasting several hours and often without deciding a winner – something foreigners (at least from non-cricketing nations) completely fail to understand.  Then several more hours in the club bar or pub, playing darts, three-card brag or poker for sometimes significant money with the opposition players, and just talking about the world and all its sins, but mostly about whether Alan Knott was a better wicket-keeper than Rod Marsh (could never make my mind up on that one), or was Ian Botham  a better all-rounder than Kapil Dev or Imran Khan (no contest – Botham every time).

Happy days.

                            *          *          *

One thing that has been common throughout my sporting days, however, has been the phenomenon of the Pushy Parent.   Those of you with kids will I’m sure have seen these people already – the father (or mother) patrolling the touchline, yelling alternately encouragement or abuse at their offspring who is desperately trying to please both parent and coach, and probably failing to do either.  The poor kid at best ends up embarrassed by the whole affair, and at worst in floods of tears as he’s hauled off before the end to save him from further pain. 

My mate Tony had a mum who was the epitomy of this.  We were playing in the under-16s for our local team.  We had grown up together, played together since pre-school (there was a group of some half a dozen of us, all from the same street) and we signed for the club at the same time, when it started in 1966 or thereabouts.   Behind Tony’s house there was a field, so from our earliest years we would all go out there and play War, or Cowboys & Indians, or Dan Dare (this was the late 50s, early 60s – a helluva long time ago now!), and when we grew out of those and started to get interested in it, football.  We would watch The Big Match highlights show on a Sunday afternoon, or the FA Cup Final, or an international match or something, then convene in the field to emulate the best bits.  It’s how we all learned to dribble the ball, or shoot, or cross and head, or in my case as a goalkeeper plunge bravely at the feet of the on-rushing forward to make a save at risk, quite literally, of life and limb.  It was brilliant.

Anyway, when the club started, we used to have a coach to away games and there were always parents coming along to watch us (which for a 14 year old was a mixed blessing: it was great to play in front of maybe 40 or 50 people – including the opposition parents – but meant we had to stop swearing and stuff or we would be in trouble).  By and large, the parents were pretty good, and would encourage us and applaud us even when we were getting hammered – which used to happen quite often, at least that first season.  But Tony’s mum was something else.

She was a small woman, no more than about 5 foot two, so smaller than most of us, let alone the bigger kids, the 16 year olds we were playing against, some of whom smoked and had beards.  As far as she was concerned, Tony was the best player ever – and to be fair, he was more than useful, in a languid Tony Currie – Trevor Brooking – Andres Iniesta style, great ball control, not the quickest runner but able to play that killer pass – and could do no wrong.  She would quite literally sprint along the touchline next to him, yelling “Come on Tony! Come on Tony!” throughout the entire match.  We got used to it in the end and ignored it, but poor old Tony used to take some stick from the opposition about being a mummy’s boy (which he most certainly wasn’t) – especially if he got injured in a tackle or something, when you could guarantee she would come running onto the pitch to make sure he was ok.   In the end, he banned her from coming to watch, after she ran onto the pitch and clouted with her handbag some kid who had just kicked Tony up in the air.  It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on a football pitch I think – the kid was about 6 foot, with a wispy beard and built like a brick shithouse and there was this little middle aged lady larruping him around the ear with a handbag.  Fabulous.

Other teams had their own versions of her, and often heated arguments would break out between the two sets of supporters while we kids tried to get on and play the game as well as possible.  It was hard sometimes, when you hear your mum or dad hurling abuse at someone on the touchline.  You think at first it’s funny, but then you realize that if they were to catch you doing something similar you would be well and truly in the shit – grounded or something.  Remember, this was in the good old days when kids actually respected their parents, by and large didn’t answer back when being bollocked, and accepted any punishment with a reasonable amount of good grace.  Unlike today…….

I was quite glad when I graduated to senior football – the men’s team – and the number of supporters dropped from 40-odd to maybe four (including both teams’ substitutes and manager).  It meant you could just go on and enjoy your game, and the only criticism would come from your teammates and your coach and was therefore perfectly valid.   I even learned some new and interesting swearwords. The Pushy Parent disappeared from view, and faded from memory.  For at least the next 15 years or so – until I got involved in Doug’s team.

                          *          *          *

Doug is my eldest son, and still the best 14 year old midfield player I’ve ever seen (alright, I admit to bias but I remain convinced that with a bit more luck he could have been as good as someone like Steven Gerrard).  Pretty much from infancy he had a talent with a ball.  At 18 months, an age when some kids are barely walking, he was able to drop kick one of those light weight plastic footballs over a 6 foot fence into next door’s back garden.   He always used to watch football on the telly with me, and although I didn’t realize it at the time (and probably he didn’t either) he was picking things up and trying them out himself when he played in the garden with me or his brothers.  He was captain of his primary school team, and they were pretty good. 

Then at about 11 he joined the village team, and I took to watching him most weeks.  He played midfield (although was equally good at striker or in defence – he had a few games in goal as well, later on, and was good there too: his ball control and distribution was as good as anything  you’ll see from today’s sweeper-keepers but this was years before they came in) and was able to dominate matches.  Great ball control, killer pass, good in the air and at tackling, and he scored a good few too.  I used to thoroughly enjoy watching him, and was (and still am) proud of him.  Then one summer’s day he and couple of mates came tearing down the drive on their bikes with the news that their team manager had given up and the team would be scrapped if no-one stepped in by the end of the week.  Well, I couldn’t let that happen, could I?  I spoke to a mate of mine whose son also played in the team, and we agreed to take it on…..Nick did all the admin stuff, arranging referees, collecting subs, balancing the books and reporting to the club committee (the club had several teams from under 10 to under 16) while I looked after the coaching and stuff, having played a bit myself.

I did it for maybe three seasons, and loved it.  I had no badges or qualifications, only 10 years’ playing experience and bags of enthusiasm – pretty much like all the other managers and coaches I came across during those years.  There was the odd one with a bit of background, if I can call it that – one of the guys in our club had played for Crystal Palace but never signed professionally (he used to say it was due to work commitments but in truth he wasn’t quite good enough), and another guy from a club in Blackheath had played for Charlton Athletic reserves – but they were very much the exception, rather than the rule.  The boys were keen as mustard, but initially not so hot.  We worked with them every Saturday morning for a couple of hours, and played on the Sunday.  Early on we realized they were being out-muscled by teams – they weren’t weak or anything like that, but some of the other teams weren’t averse to the odd bit of law-bending, so we spent a couple of sessions teaching a few tricks to combat it.  They started improving. 

And then the Pushy Parents started turning up.  When results weren’t so good we would have maybe two or three parents turn up, which was great for away matches as it helped tremendously with transport.  But when they started winning, more parents arrived, and invariably they were of the Pushy variety.  Nick and I spent half the time justifying selections and tactics to them, and it led to some quite hot exchanges at times.  I don’t how much it affected the kids, but it can’t have been easy for some of them when I would be telling them to play one way and their old man was telling them something different.  And again, it was the same at every single club we played – parents arguing with managers, kids stuck in the middle not knowing which way to turn.  We had one lad, a central defender, very comfortable on the ball and with the ability and confidence to run the ball out of defence.  I was happy for him to do that most times, and applauded it, but his dad invariably was bellowing at him to “Get rid of it!” – i.e. just hoof the bloody thing as far upfield as possible.  Inevitably, sometimes the kid was caught in two minds.  Another boy wasn’t very good at all (being kind to him), but he was part of the squad so we gave him match time – there were only 16 kids allowed in the squad, so with the inevitable injuries and childhood illnesses that was quite regularly.  And of course if he was in the team at the expense of certain players (I’m thinking of one in particular) then there was hell to play.  The other kid’s father would spend half his time abusing this poor lad and the other half berating Nick and I for putting him on in the first place.  It destroyed the lad’s confidence completely…..a great shame, and totally unnecessary.

It all came good in the end, the year after I was forced to quit because of work pressures.   I was given the choice by my then employer, a now defunct US bank, to quit the team or quit the job – since they were paying my mortgage I didn’t have much choice.  The bastards sacked me six months later anyway….    Nick carried on alone, with the odd bit of help from a parent who claimed to have played for Southampton, and the lads won the league.  I was really pleased, and like to think (and it’s probably delusional, but still…) that the grounding I had given them previously may have contributed to their success.

                         *          *          *

I used to think the Pushy Parent was a purely British phenomenon, but now I’m not so sure.

Barcelona, the all-conquering Spaniards widely held to be the best team on the planet (and quite possibly the best club side ever) have started a nursery team in Warsaw.  They have centres in four locations around the city, including one close to where we live, and apparently it’s something they are doing increasingly around the world – a friend told me there is a similar scheme operating in London.  It’s all part of a strategic plan to sweep up as much talent worldwide as early as possible, thus keeping kids out of the hands of major rivals like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Chelsea, the two Manchester clubs and so on.  The money they’re spending is considered a long term investment, and to me it seems a great idea.  The kids fortunate enough to get signed on will get the best quality coaching from an early age, and even if they don’t make the grade they will without doubt be better players for the experience and take that on to whichever team they play for – and probably pass it on to their own kids too.  And if the club picks up another Lionel Messi for nothing at one of these academies it will have been worth their while – and the law of averages suggests that sooner or later they will do just that.

Anyway, given the proximity to our place and the fact that Kuba, with the encouragement of his brothers and I, loves football, we put his name down, and he had a trial last weekend.  Whatever happens, he enjoyed it, had some fun with a bunch of other six year olds, on a proper pitch under floodlights with real, honest-to-God Barcelona coaching staff – an experience I would LOVE to have had!  And there too was the Pushy Parent, the Polish variety.  Not too different to the British in fact.   Some of the kids had obviously spent time practicing with their dads, and were actually quite useful little footballers – one kid was only little, the smallest boy there, but easily the most skillful, a right little Messi or Xavi , even at the age of 6 great to watch.  I would be surprised if he didn’t make it.  But there were others there who were trying their best but for whatever reason it wasn’t quite happening for them – and their dad’s reactions were eye openers.  “You can do better than that, what the hell’s wrong with you tonight?” was one of the more polite comments apparently.

I have to admit to falling by the wayside myself – in a minor way, but sufficient to be “Sent to the stands” (they had those too….).  What happened was this:  the last exercise was a four v four small-sided match, where everyone had a go in goal.  Kubzi was doing ok – flying into tackles on the opposition and his own team alike (from which he collected a nice bruise on his face from a collision – his first war-wound), and almost scoring from one shot.  Come his turn in goal, and he’s wandering around a couple of feet behind his goal line.  So I’m yelling at him to move up a bit (fortunately play was up the other end) but either he couldn’t hear me or didn’t understand what I was on about.  So I went on to the pitch, behind the goal, and just told him again to move up a couple of yards, which he duly did.  But I couldn’t resist it – I started giving him advice about what to do when the other team attacked, what to do with the ball and so on.  Up comes the Head Coach, a young Pole with excellent English (fortunately).  He was very polite, but told me to get off the pitch as they wanted to let the kids think for themselves.   Of course I apologized to him and beat a hasty retreat – I agreed completely with his point, and made the excuse that I used to coach Doug’s team, and was getting old now, missed it all terribly and sometimes got carried away.  All of which is perfectly true.

                                 *          *          *

I was talking to my sister-in-law about this on Sunday.  Her sons play for a local club and are both pretty useful players (the youngest boy in particular).  Anyway, this summer the team took part in an international tournament in Barcelona.  There were also teams from Spain, Germany, France and elsewhere.  It was all quite serious, without being the end of the world if you lost.  And of course a great experience for the kids to take part in something like that.  But she was telling me that where the Polish parents and (especially) the Spanish were intent only on supporting and encouraging their children’s teams, no matter the performance or result, others, notably the Germans, were far from sporting and were exceedingly pissed off if their team lost.  There was a reluctance to shake hands at the start and end of a match, especially if the result or performance were not “acceptable” and much abuse aimed at match officials.

It reminded me of my experiences so many years ago.

                                  *          *          *

And it also made me think about the way football has developed over those years, especially in England.

I can remember a time when we were genuinely one of the best teams in the world, and beating us – especially at home – was a major achievement (unless you happened to be German or Brazilian when you expected to win every game anyway).  I remember 1966, watching us win the World Cup for the only time, then going out into the field and spending the rest of the weekend (make that the next WEEK) imitating all the key moments with my mates.   I remember the 1980s, when Liverpool and Nottingham Forest dominated the European Cup, in the days when you had to win your League to qualify and the whole competition was a knock out format, ties decided over two legs, before it became this bloated UEFA Champions League where you can finish fourth and still qualify, then make millions from competing in half a season of group league matches before half a season of knock-out matches.  And all of it live on tv all over the world.

I remember when Spain were not very good and tended to get knocked out in group matches of the major tournaments (that’s if they qualified at all), rather than the reigning European and World Champions as they are now.  I can even remember Germany being relatively shite (although the buggers still seemed to beat us every time!).

So what happened?  How come it’s now Spain and Germany who are the best in the world (with apologies to Brazil) and us who are pants?  Where did it all go wrong?

In a nutshell, I think primarily in a lack of leadership in the English game, with senior FA figures who refuse to accept that the game itself has moved on.  Who have failed to invest in the development of the game from kids’ football up to the professional game.  Who have allowed money, in the shape of the Sky tv bankrolled Premier League to dominate the game at the expense not only of the rest of professional football but even the national team.

Read any football magazine and you will find regular articles comparing player development in England against the likes of Spain and Germany and the Netherlands, in all of which every organization in football works together with the interests of the national team at the pinnacle.  In all of them the number of professionally qualified coaches working with kids – in their formative years, from about 6 to 16 – runs in the tens of thousands and not the LESS THAN ten thousand in similar posts in England (and that does NOT include the academies run by the professional clubs).  In all of them, there is a recognizable style of play common to most club teams, and to all the various international age-group sides.  The players are comfortable on the ball, with either foot, can control it with a single touch, make space for themselves seemingly effortlessly, can run forever and play at a pace (and a variation of pace) that can seem bewildering.  Even the goalkeepers have ball control and dribbling ability, not to mention distribution skills – the ability to pass long or short with unerring accuracy – that put many an English outfield player to shame.

In all of these countries, even the youngest kids are encouraged to try dribbles, and tricks, and first-time flicks and all the “fancy dan” stuff  that in England generally brings out the bellowed “Get rid of the fucking thing!” when some skillful but hapless centre half tries to dribble out of his area or play his way out of a tight spot.  Kids play on small pitches with small goals, scaled to their size at each age level, and don’t get to a full-sized pitch and goal until around 15 or 16 (and even then they continue to play a lot of small-sided stuff).  They spend a lot more time at training sessions too, maybe 10 or 12 hours a week (more in Germany) rather the English two or three. 

Meanwhile, the English remain stuck in their “Willing Amateur” mentality.  Most kids teams are coached by people like me – enthusiastic dads who’ve played a bit and (let’s be honest) are desperately trying to re-capture lost glories or live out their fantasies on their kids.  We don’t have coaching badges, we know bugger all about fitness or tactics except what we’ve picked up from the pages of FourFourTwo or When Saturday Comes – excellent magazines for sure, but hardly text books for making our kids better players, worthy to challenge the likes of Spain and Germany and France and Italy and Brazil and……the list goes on.

We’re all basically Pushy Parents, whether we care to admit or not.  And between us and those who run the game in England, we’ve managed to ruin generation after generation of potentially talented players, and brought the English team, once the best in the world, to its knees.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Steve Jobs R.I.P.

So Steve Jobs has died.  So young: only 56 – younger than me, and the same age as my dad was when he passed away many years ago.

By all accounts, he was an extraordinary guy, and there are hundreds of obituary columns published that do far more justice to his memory and with far more knowledge of the bloke than I can possibly hope to manage.  I’m not in any way trying to compete with them, but I wanted to commemorate him anyway.

I’ve never used an Apple pc, either the old ones that looked like boxes but are credited with opening up personal computing to a generation and introduced the mouse, nor those multicoloured transparent things that came out in the late 90s that looked amazingly cool.  Nor any of the company’s range of laptops that seem to be getting thinner and lighter by the model – my son has one and loves it.  I’m told they’re far better than your bog standard Windows pc, and that anyone in the creative world – designers, architects, whatever – would never dream of using anything else (whether that’s because the machines are so much better at certain things or these users are particular posers I have no idea).  But clearly, Jobs, the creative brain behind them all, made computers and laptops cool and Must Have accessories in a way that IBM and Michael Dell and Bill Gates never did (or could).  I don’t have an iPad, and to be honest I don’t really see the point of them – they seem too small for a proper laptop or computer, and too big for a mobile phone, but again Jobs has brought out something that everyone now seems to want and the likes of Samsung and RIM are playing catch up.  Interestingly, he apparently didn’t “invent” either, but he and his brand have made them Must Haves.  And that was the genius of the bloke.

I wanted an iPod, when they were getting really popular a few years ago (again, my son showed me his and while I wasn’t keen on his choice of music I was smitten by the idea) because I figured this would be a great source of entertainment when I was travelling – and much easier to carry than a Walkman or Discman, both of which were fine but meant lugging around collections of tapes or CDs as well as the player.  So I asked my wife for one as a Christmas gift.  Instead she bought me an iPhone – I had always been a Nokia man (and still am for work anyway), and I wasn’t convinced: I thought the iPhone a bit gimmicky.  But once I had got it and started using it, and spent a few days copying my favourite music onto my laptop, from there to my iTunes library and thence to the phone, I fell in love with it.  It’s now my Must Have travel companion, but interestingly I rarely actually use it as a phone.  This is because I can use it only on my local number (I can’t be bothered to have it chipped to accept my UK Vodaphone card) and that doesn’t have roaming, so it’s only ever a phone when I’m in Warsaw – a few days a month.  Likewise I rarely use the various news apps I have, the couple of games my kids have, all downloaded from the iStore (another Jobs innovation) and standard stuff like weather and stock price feeds that came with the phone.  But it’s my music on the move, and I’ve written in several posts on here how much pleasure I get from it, and how it preserves my sanity.

Steve Jobs is often quoted as saying his greatest wish was to make things better for people – and as far as I’m concerned, just with the iPod and iPhone he has done just that.  But looking more broadly, he has changed so much about the way we live and communicate with his various marketing triumphs (I won’t call them inventions, because in many cases he merely took other people’s kit, improved them immeasurably to fill gaps in the market that no-one else had perceived, and then marketed them brilliantly – which really is The American Way!)  - and that was the man’s genius.  His product launches were events, theatre even, that no-one else could carry off in quite the same way.  The latest, for the iPhone 4S, only the day before he died, was something of a dull and disappointing affair without his presence – even the product wasn’t as expected.  Like many other commentators, I do wonder how things will go for Apple in the future without him.

So farewell, Steve.  I didn’t know you at all, or your products particularly well, but that one little gem enriched my life beyond a doubt, and for that I thank you.

Rest in peace.  

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Your flight is now ready for boarding

I’ve come to the conclusion, after all these years on the road, that there is absolutely no quick and efficient way to board a plane.  If the airlines could only discover that miracle cure, then I’m convinced that the majority of travel delays would disappear overnight!

                                                                      *          *          *

I’m sure you’ve all seen – and been in – the melee that sometimes goes on at the gate.  I can remember a time travelling from Luton back to Warsaw on a (now defunct) Eastern European budget carrier. There were no allocated seats, so it was first come first served for the windows and front seats.  I rolled up at the gate a good half hour before boarding as there was bugger all to do at the airport after the tour of the Duty Free shops, and found the area already crowded with maybe 150 people, most of them Poles returning home. The flight was signaled on the screen as “Delayed” – no estimated time – but a good portion of the passengers were already standing in a straggly and typically disorganized line at the gate…..even though there was no sign of the plane or any airline gate staff.  I sat down (there were plenty of available seats) and started reading my book.

About 10 minutes later, a couple of girls came along and took their places to board us, so immediately half of the remaining passengers jumped up and joined the throng.  Still no sign of a plane, mind…..  Then it arrived, swung off the taxi way and pulled up outside the gate.  Now at that time at Luton there were no air-bridges connecting the plane to the terminal – it was down the steps and walk across the tarmac to the door.   Which of course meant that arriving passengers and those replacing them on the aircraft were using the same relatively narrow pathway in and out of the building.  What could possibly go wrong?  Common sense says that until all the passengers are off the plane, those departing are not going to be allowed out so you sit and wait patiently for the call, right?

Wrong.  As soon as the plane arrived, before it had even stopped rolling, never mind unloading, all the rest of the passengers leapt to their feet and started pushing and shoving to be first through the gate.  Bedlam…..and the two poor gate agents were trying desperately to stop them and get them to move back to allow a plane-full of passengers into the building.  It was all very fraught – eventually security had to step in to force a path through the mob for the arriving passengers, who were clearly mystified and not a little pissed off by what was going on (it was raining, I remember, and because of the intransigence of the fools at the gate they were having to wait outside getting soaked until the security guys did their work).   Eventually, we were allowed through, and the gate agents just stood back and let everyone go in a mad rush of jostling and cursing people, with no attempt at organization.  I don’t blame them – they were absolutely helpless.

To this day I have no idea why the passengers were behaving like that.  It defied belief and all common sense, and only caused a longer delay than would otherwise have happened.  It was the same on the plane, when I boarded, quicker than expected as I was pushed along in the middle of the mob – people were arguing over who had been first to that seat or the other, no-one was prepared to compromise and take a middle seat in order to get the plane moving, and an increasingly harassed aircrew was desperately trying to bring some semblance of order to it all.  I eased my way through, ducking under the waving arms of people angrily gesticulating, and slid quietly into a window seat at an over-wing exit row while two guys argued over who was going to take it, then feigned linguistic ignorance when they started bawling at me, their quarrel forgotten.  I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

As an object lesson in how not to board a plane, it surely could not be better!

                                                                      *          *          *

There are other times when things get a little silly too, mainly surrounding our good old Frequent Travellers and Business Class passengers…..of whom, of course, I am one.  Now what typically happens is the boarding announcement calls for passengers to board, and then adds a little rider: “Business Class passengers and Travel Scheme Gold Card holders may board at their convenience”.   So everyone is happily and steadily moving through the boarding process, handing passport and boarding card to the gate agent to scan them through, when some chinless wonder, usually carrying a laptop and pulling a wheely suitcase, barges through: “Business Class!  Gold Card!”, and demanding immediate attention.  He’s usually accompanied by work colleagues (not unusually one of whom is some bimbo he’s trying to impress), all similarly laden.  Woe betide the gate agent who denies immediate access to these fools!

The other stunt pulled by these travellers – and I confess to pulling it myself – is to arrive at the gate shortly before boarding, and rather than take a seat stand right by the barrier to be first through onto the plane.  People may have been waiting patiently on the seats for quite a while, but they’re only Economy Class, goes the thought process, so they’re not really important.  Of course, as soon as the gate agent starts making the announcement, these guys are right there, passports and boarding cards in hand, ready to move.  The concept of The Queue is unknown. 

The reason I try to insinuate myself into this little bunch is not because I fly Business Class (those days are long gone in my company) or because I consider myself above other Economy Class passengers courtesy of my Frequent Flyer Silver Card (I don’t), but because quite often they do not actually have Business Class seats or even seats towards the front of the plane.  What they are actually doing is stuffing their baggage into the storage bins at the front, and then taking their seats further back.  All this does of course is take up all the storage space for other passengers who may possibly board a little later with legitimate front-of-cabin seats – and of course more chaos ensues as passengers and cabin crew try to re-arrange bags to fit their own in.  There is a simple solution to this of course: no baggage larger than a laptop case should be allowed inside the cabin.  A few airlines try to do this, especially on full flights in smaller aircraft, and it invariably causes yet more argument at both gate and aircraft.

LOT, my local airline, do this often.  At check in they assess your carry-on luggage, and if they are aware that it will cause storage problems in the cabin (which of course they can tell as they know the exact plane you’re flying on and what its cabin storage capacity is) then you are given a label “Delivery At Aircraft” on your unacceptable bag, and have to hand it in to the handlers when you board the plane.  It works pretty well, at least at boarding, but can cause some anger because of course at most airports the bags then join the rest of the luggage in the black hole that is the baggage hall, rather than be loaded onto trucks for collection when you leave the plane.  No quick getaways for our friendly neighbourhood businessmen here!

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Passengers with kids also cause problems – and don’t think for one minute I advocate a blanket ban on kids travelling: nothing of the sort.  My two love an airline journey, planes excite them tremendously – my son was complaining last week that he hasn’t been on an aeroplane this year.   No, the issue is again one of boarding efficiently. The best idea is to prioritize families to get them settled in their seats and all their (copious) baggage stored away before letting anyone else through – all very pragmatic and sensible.

When you’re travelling with kids, especially small ones, you are invariably and unavoidably laden with stuff that is essential for the trip.  As well as your own baggage you have a push chair, usually with a sleeping infant in it.  You have another bag with bottles, food, wipes, nappies, and at least one change of clothes for each child.  Probably another with books and toys for the journey.  If the kids are a little older then a small portable DVD player and some movies for them to watch.  It all mounts up and the younger the child the more you are carrying.  Most airlines, at boarding, call for passengers travelling with infants to come through first.  It usually happens that this call comes through while you’re taking one of them to the toilet or changing a nappy or something.  So you scramble to finish what you’re doing and rush through, to avoid delaying everyone else.  And run the gauntlet of disapproving glances and tut-tutting from the other passengers (especially You Know Who!).  The alternative is to finish what you’re doing in your own time, then move through and hope that people are prepared to back off and let you through first – inevitably some are more reluctant to do this than others.

You get to the plane.  The baggage handler takes the push chair from you, and you hope to see it again in one piece when you land.  So lugging multiple bags over one arm and maybe a child in the other, you walk through the door.  An officious stewardess asks to see your boarding cards (with luck you’re clutching them in your teeth), and points you in the right direction (basically turn right and walk down the aisle until your row, then sit).  Now everything is fine if you were properly prioritized: the cabin is empty, you get to your seats, a stewardess helps you with your bags and the kids and you can relax.  But if you’re late – well, the fun starts.  Up to the door it’s the same.  Through the door, it’s the same.  Then you turn right, and you’re faced with an already crowded aisle. You try to move forward, and your kids, excited, are probably trying to squeeze through ahead of you – doesn’t go down too well.  People already sitting in aisle seats are in danger of getting a whack round the head from one of your bags.  People struggling to stow their own baggage are less than impressed when you ask them if they would mind moving their wheely bag a little to give you enough room to squeeze in a Tesco carrier bag full of teddy bears and Ladybird books and coloured pencils.  You get to your row and find someone already in your aisle seat (because typically dad sits in one row with a child and mum sits in the next with the other), and they have spread their own handbag, jackets and stuff over the middle seat next to them – and seem a tad upset when you ask them to move so you and your little one can get to your seats.  It’s great.

And can take forever.

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A lot of airlines these days try to board you by row number, starting from the back of the plane.   So instead of (or sometimes as well as) prioritizing families the announcement tells people in rows 35 to 18 to board first and everyone else to sit down and wait patiently.  Yeah, right.  Oh, and of course, “Business Class passengers and holders of Gold Cards may board at their leisure”.   Actually, if everyone did as requested it may actually work – a recent piece on the Yahoo News site showed an exercise an American airline had done where they tried various ways of boarding a bog-standard workhorse Boeing 737 to see which method was quickest and most efficient.  It turned out that boarding by rows, and further by window seats first, then middle, then aisle, was by far and away quickest – by several minutes in fact.  But it was a bit of a loaded test since all the people playing passenger were airline employees and of course did exactly as they were told.  There were no visible pretend families laden with kids, no-one pretending to be a hyper important Business Class passenger demanding immediate access, and not too many wheely bags to clutter the place up.  All in all, it was not really what I would term “real life.”

Most times, when the announcement about boarding by rows is made (and it is happening increasingly) the majority of people ignore it and just go to board anyway.  I’ve done it myself to make sure I had storage space on a little Embraer 140 (a very comfortable plane, actually, but a little light in rack space), on an Embraer 175 (bigger and more comfortable and spacious) and various Airbus short- and medium-haul planes.  Never once have I been turned back by the gate agent because I’m trying to board out of sequence…..which makes a bit of a mockery of introducing this process in the first place.  A little bit of polite enforcement may actually demonstrate the improved efficiency to such an extent that passengers will accept it as the norm, and we’ll all be happier for it.

Mind you, it really needs to be done sensibly.  Last Sunday evening I caught a night flight from Warsaw to Larnaca.  At boarding the message went something like: “We are boarding by rows.  Passengers in rows 30 to 15 should board first.  Other passengers please wait until you are called.  Tonight we will be taking you by bus to the plane.  Thank you.”

Wait a second!  We’re all going onto the same bus out to the plane, and you’re asking us to board by row numbers?  Do you really expect everyone to stand back and let people off the bus in the same order they got onto it? 

Of course, no-one took a blind bit of notice: we all piled through, in a very orderly fashion, got off the bus and onto the plane in an equally orderly fashion.  Not by row numbers.  And you know what?  It was completely painless.  No delay.  No squabbles.