16 September 2012

How to monetise that angst...

She broke through the crowd with the expansive, encompassing gesture of a performer announcing her presence on the stage, with the memorable invocation, “priority boarding”, addressed to nobody in particular.  

He hirpled after, through the sudden space she made between bodies, conspicuously less conspicuous, clutching the party’s hand luggage. Of the two, he was done up with more care. Angular spectacles, a grey sprout of a soul patch beneath his lower lip, trussed up stiffly in a Ted Baker shirt: an uncomfortable-looking inflexible verticality of stripes, sleeves rolled down, ending untucked above new jeans. I took him for a flashy dentist.  

His wife was a blonder, harder-mouthed Maureen Lipman, and firmly in control of the couple’s itinerary. She’d clearly donned her holiday flowers – a mottled arrangement of insipid pastels and livid pink, with a sort of pale-khaki coatee – presumably to pull rank over the vain-seeming hubby whose style little suggested he was shortly to be crammed into a Ryanair cabin, no doubt disturbing his stripes and the careful crease of his swank denims. 

The passengers have clumped at the gate, the plane will shortly be shot full of them, the cabin rocked by their ungainly lobs as outsize bags are pitched into the overhead lockers.  But not yet.  For now, the way is shut, and vignettes of middle-age, middle-class angst predominate.  There is much anxious footering.  Although by this point, all will have successfully navigated a score of portals, terminals and desks, several continue to fondle and squint at their boarding passes, or cod-mouthed, throw glassy-eyes over the terminal, still half expecting to be on the wrong flight, or turned away at the gate. Some spice this up by overburdening themselves with a free copy of the Daily Mail, snatched up from an unmanned stand.

People leave almost comfortable chairs to queue precipitously, clutching their luggage for grim death, clearly imagining that the flight has more travellers booked than seats, and that they risk being left behind. They stand around miserably bored, having secured the largely pointless but clearly coveted advantage over their fellow fliers, further back. At this stage, ongoing angst about their travel documents seems the only means by which the numbing tedium can be alleviated. That and casting lugubrious looks at the second, shorter “priority boarding queue”, which the Striped Shirt and his sharp-elbowed missus are now ostentatiously wafting about in. Another woman, with a friendly, ottery face, only now discovers that this flight is unseated.  She is discombobulated, and proceeds to spend fifteen fascinating minutes, wargaming strategies with her spouse if they are forced to separate.  

None of this, however, for our gallant couple, who swept through the mob, ghastly figureheads of the Priorities. For the idler, lounging, and travelling alone, the temptation to rubberneck on your neighbours is acute, and watching this pair was exceedingly entertaining.  For all of their grand gestures, the self-important look-at-me swish – We are the Priority Boarders, People of Quality, this Way – they were clearly gloriously uncomfortable to be flying on Ryanair at all. When asked about their holiday plans by friendly acquaintances, you can be sure one of them insisted, “of course we usually – we’d obviously prefer – to travel British Airways – but there just wasn’t a convenient route, unfortunately”.  

Given the company’s advertising, and a few disrespectful assumptions about this couple’s values, you can see why participating in its inexpensive import-export regime would threaten a cherished and cultivated self-image.  Ryanair’s blue and yellow advertising smacks of the polythene bag and the pound shop.  They clung to their priority, purchased at a princely £5 per ticket, the way a shipwrecked mariner would stick like a limpet to bobbing jetsam.  It kept their precarious sense of social dignity afloat. We deprioritised cattle were a marvellous reassurance to them. 

As if to underline the point, when the lines got moving and the flesh was being piped into the plane, each of us were lead past Mr and Mrs, who were inevitably perched right at the front. Of the two, her look of self-basting exultation was the more memorable.  It came as something of a relief that she didn’t speak her mind, and bestow self-delighted benedictions on us dawdlers, bringing comfortably up the rear, “priority boarding”. As I say, when the lonely traveller’s newspaper is spent of news, he has little enough to entertain him, but the tiny cues of their extraordinary performance kept me much diverted.

It isn’t exactly groundbreaking to observe that anxiety can be monetised, but it was curious to actually observe the torment and pleasures of its corporate manipulation so starkly and so frankly.  Companies and their advertisements are working this mischief all of the time, with their cyclical damnation-redemption narratives.  “Have you noticed that people think that a perfectly normal feature of most human bodies like yours is shameful and repulsive?” Intercede, the Product being flogged.  For an ideal, sustainable market in anxiety, it is important that the Product won’t fix your problem after one swig, or one lather. Although the corporate conscience wishes that its tricks were more efficacious, alas, only temporary redemption from the anxiety and unhappiness they’ve fostered and exploited in you is now possible.  At least until the bottle runs out, or the razor blunts, or the electrics fizzle.  And so repeat. 

The sniffish bourgeois affords many opportunities for canny speculators in status-anxiety.  We’ve all seen how supermarkets rolling out whole lines of premium own-label products – grub, drink and the like – which promotes reassuring distinctions between your purchases and those of the common man: Finest, Taste the Difference, Extra Special.  By no means am I suggesting that these things are uniformly without incremental culinary virtues over their other sausages, or sauces, or suchlike - merely that they appeal to ideas of quality, taste and distinction which are fundamentally rooted in anxieties about class, not about the savour of the plate of food being purchased. 

What is extraordinary about Ryanair is the bluntness with which this sort of transaction is made, and the extent to which some naked investors in the status of a few minutes edge over their fellows, a choice of seats on a quarter-empty plane, and a flouncing precedence – are pathetically grateful.  Michael O’Leary turned an easy £20, and Mr and Mrs Khaki-Coatee gained what was clearly for them, beyond price: a coping mechanism in our airborne cattle-trailer, and an undisturbed bourgeois conscience.


  1. Speaking of which. Fortnightly, I get a Transpennine Express Train between Glasgow and Manchester for work. For the journey home, I often buy a single first class ticket, which is usually a difference of £10-20. I do this because I am shattered after working away for three days, and, for the first two-three stops out of Manchester, the train is one of the busiest in the UK, so this is the easiest way to get a seat. Plus, the seats are a bit bigger.

    The only other extras offered for Transpennine first class are free not-very-nice tea/coffee and a not-very-nice free sandwich and tiny bag of pretzels. The train is like the wee commuter trains in Glasgow, and there is no wifi. So what you are really paying for is a slightly bigger seat. Well, that and ...

    ... due to the afore-mentioned regular over-crowding for the first two-three stops out of Manchester (where travellers north are joined by Manchester commuters), every single time for the past nine months first class has been "de-classified" as far as Bolton, sometimes Preston. This means that standard class ticket bearers can enter the inner sanctum of the first class section.

    The part that gets me every time is that first class passengers are reassured (over the loud-speakers where everyone can hear it) that they can write in to customer services to receive a refund for the portion of their trip where first class was "de-classified". For what exactly? We still have the slightly bigger seats. We still have our free disgusting tea/coffee, sandwich and pretzel. We are literally being offered compensation for having standard class passengers inside the same part of the carriage as us.

    Every time, I think "I must write in about this. It is disgusting and rude and unacceptable to think that we should be entitled to compensation for sharing part of a carriage with folk who paid £10-20 less than us".

    Anyway: Bourdieu's notion of social capital be what you're talking about. Very interesting stuff; finding out about Bourdieu's theories over the past six years has changed how I view the world, and not a small amount of my behaviour.

  2. Try being 6'4" with 36" inside leg measurement. Priority boarding is a necessity on most low cost airline flights......

  3. I flew to Amsterdam for work recently, and was surprised by this Priority Boarding thing (I don't recall there being such a thing when I flew by SAS to Denmark and Norway recently, but perhaps I just missed it). It seemed to me that people had paid extra for the benefit of being called to the queue for checking boarding passes five minutes early, which essentially meant they got to stand and wait for the doors to the plane to open five minutes longer than everyone else. They then got to be at the head of the queue for getting onto the plane, which ended up being at least half-empty, so there was no discernible advantage there as none of the overhead compartments were particularly full from what I could tell.

    But I suppose if folk are willing to pay extra for an illusion, then why stop them?

  4. Ha ha good story. Been there and seen it myself. I always sit and read my paper until the airline worker has to come and drag me to the desk to board. Used to drive my ex mental.

    Couple of typos.

    'led' not 'lead'

    'We've' not 'We're'

  5. Moray Eyrie,

    Curious you should mention Bourdieu. I just moved house, which has had the effect of jumbling up all of my books: what should pop up but a copy of his 1970s word, Distinction, on French "cultivated" taste. When I first embarked on the study of sociology in Glasgow, it was one of the early books in the discipline I chanced to pick up. An excellent example of Bourdieu's observation that the business of sociology is to "render the familiar strange", and recognising how curious the absolutely familiar features of our daily lives can be.


    I do sympathise. Not being a short fellow myself, I've only just shaken off the slow-infusion deep vein thrombosis Ryanair gestated in my extremities. As others observed elsewhere, there are good practical reasons for some folk to avail themselves of Ryanair's priority status - what entertained me was the venality of this pair (both of whom were of very modest proportions).