Chuggers and Shamers


I spent much of my first summer in London in 1980 standing in the queue at the back of the Albert Hall for the BBC Proms (I had more patience and energy when I was 22). If you wanted a good vantage point you had to be there by 4pm, though for the more popular programmes it had to be the night before. All in all, you’d be standing for six hours at least, if you count the concert itself, though the more professional Prommers were equipped with collapsible camping stools, thermos flasks, and so on. There’s a lot of oneupmanship when it comes to Promming.

For three hours or so, before you bought your ticket, you couldn’t go anywhere. The most annoying aspect of this was the ‘chuggers’, the good people collecting money for charity, though I don’t think that’s what they were called back then. They lacked the big buckets that today’s kind hijackers carry. Of course, they were well-meaning young people and I don’t doubt they were collecting money for excellent causes.

And they were in chugger heaven chugging the Prommers behind the Albert Hall. We were relatively rich and easy pickings, I suppose. And there was no possibility of escape, save by forgoing some particularly wonderful and obscure piece by Stockhausen, Cage or Ligeti, pieces I’d been longing to hear since infancy. The chuggers had us, as Molesworth might have put it, ‘like a Treen in a disabled spaceship.’

They usually worked backwards from the head of the queue, methodically and determinedly, and, of course, nearly everyone gave them something. Most would have felt embarrassed not to. The moral pressure was almost irresistible.

Only I hated, even then, doing something just because it was expected of me. The greater the moral and peer pressure exerted, whatever the cause, the more I wanted not to. So usually I didn’t.

‘You don’t think this is a deserving cause?’ they’d ask.

‘Do I have to explain myself?’ I’d say, and you could see them beginning to enjoy themselves. Torturing a refusenik like me was what made chugging fun.

‘I think you do,’ they’d say. ‘After all, everyone else here is giving, and I’m sure you’re as comfortably off as they are. Is it that you just don’t care about people/donkeys/the Amazon rainforest/injured soldiers/cystic fibrosis/torture/rococo plasterwork/the overuse of hydrocarbons?’ And so on.

The more there was of this sort of thing the more I dug my heels in, however contemptuous the looks of the Prommers to the right and left of me.

Then, and now, if I give time or money to charities (which I promise you I do, from time to time), I like to do it authentically, not because everyone else does it. Acting authentically (after all, existentialism was fashionable in the early 1980s) was important to me then, as now.

I was reminded of this by my friend Jo Weaver’s blog, yesterday, in which she writes about the ‘flag-shamers’ and ‘clap-shamers’ who terrorise the meanies who don’t ‘join in’ in the UK. If you didn’t fly a flag on VE Day or don’t clap the NHS on Thursday evenings you’re as likely as not to be abused by your neighbours.

Whatever happened to tolerance and minding your own business?

I’d never thought of the UK as a totalitarian state, where conformity in thought and deed is a requirement of citizenship. If I were in London I probably would clap the NHS on Thursday evenings, but I don’t think I’d fly a flag on VE Day. If I did neither it would be no one’s business but my own.

Other People – Other Passengers


‘Hell is other people,’ Jean-Paul Sartre is frequently, but mistakenly, said to have quipped, probably on a particularly nauseous day in a moment of trademark existential anxiety. He would have said it in French, of course, if he’d said it at all – ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres.’ Naturally, it sounds more profound in French and, if delivered with a good accent and sufficient conviction, doesn’t invite explanation – the sound or the look is sufficient to convey a sophisticated dissatisfaction with life and all others who live it. But if you’re curious, look it up on the internet and you’ll find the usual unilluminating squabble about what Jean-Paul really meant. Such is continental philosophy.

In actual fact, as the web tells us, it’s a character in one of Sartre’s plays (No Exit) who delivers the line, and it’s longer and more qualified –  ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’

Well, one knows what he means. We’re always at our most existentially vulnerable at breakfast, too sensitive to cope with the mundane or to deal with idle chatter. Better silence, a harp, a serious newspaper, a railway timetable, or a large utility bill. Best of all, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

But if Sartre had travelled as much as I do and spent as much time in airports and planes, he would have written it differently. ‘Hell is other passengers.


If you’re a frequent traveller you’ll recognise these unlovable traits, perhaps in others, perhaps in yourself.

Check In

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who argue about baggage or check-in charges. They can’t win. They should have read the terms and conditions.
  • Whose bags are too heavy and they’re repacking their intimate items in front of you
  • Who hang around for pleasantries or details of their connecting flights when they should simply take their boarding cards and leave


I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who take off their shoes when they haven’t been asked to
  • Who ignore all the signs and start taking out their laptops or taking off their jackets only when they actually get to the machine
  • Who walk through the x-ray arch with a watch or a necklace on
  • Who push their way to the front of the queue on the mad pretext that their flight is about to leave. You usually find they’re leaving on a later flight than yours
  • Who are just slow in their movements

On the Way to the Gate

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who amble at an elderly pace along the middle of the moving walkway, or, worse still, stand entirely still and block you with their luggage

At the Gate

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who’ve put their passport or boarding card in an inner pocket or a bag and can’t find them when they’re needed
  • Who are queuing for the wrong flight
  • Who queue. What’s the point?

In the Plane

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who obstruct the aisle whilst they stow their bags and coats. Stand in a row. We want to leave on time.
  • Who won’t sit down until the seatbelt signs go on – they’re usually Italian. It’s not a party.
  • Who get up for the toilet the moment the seatbelt sign goes off. Why didn’t they go before they boarded?
  • Who take complete possession of an armrest that’s partially yours
  • Who tip their seat back when you’re eating your lunch
  • Who let their children kick the back of your seat
  • Who talk
  • Who clap when you’ve landed safely. Don’t they know how easy it is to fly a plane? Nowadays you just type in the coordinates.
  • Who push their way up the aisle when it’s time to get off, instead of letting everyone exit row by row

Passport Control

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who stand in the electronic passport queue when they haven’t got an electronic passport
  • Who put their passport into the passport reader in unintelligent ways
  • Who don’t know they’re not citizens of the European Union, and, worse still, those immigration officers who don’t direct them to the longer queue
  • Who stand on the STOP line until they’re beckoned to approach the booth.

At the Carousel

I can’t bear those other people…

  • Who wait at a point that’s a minute or two from where the bags come out. Stupid.


Sorry about this peevish and existentially anxious rant. Yes, I had a tiring day, and no, I can’t yet afford my own plane.