Howard Jacobson: Watch baggage handlers at work and you too can succumb to luggage rage

I watched someone clearing bags manhandling them as if they had done him a personal injury
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Enough with the euphemisms. It wasn't air rage that got novelist, controversialist and supermodel Naomi Campbell into trouble, it was luggage rage. The distinction is crucial. Whatever the reason, no one wants a fellow passenger screaming and spitting when a plane's about to take off, even in first class. There is a universal decorum of flying, the slightest breach of which is unforgivable. You board, you strap yourself in, you descend into the deep depression of the helpless, you pray to the God in whom you don't believe, you take a mental farewell of everyone who has ever loved you (even if no one has ever loved you), you vow that if you live you will never do this again (which shouldn't be difficult since you don't really want to go anywhere anyway), and if you're lucky you will fall asleep and not wake until you've landed (on the ground or in Paradise). Since this is communal suffering, any individual voicing of it is plain bad manners. But at least if it's luggage rather than air fuelled – that's to say pre-dates or post-dates the actual being in the air experience – it doesn't contribute to our hysteria in the way that fits of pilot-phobia or wing-dread do.

Fear of flying is utterly rational. The crazed are those who enjoy it. But since we either fly or we don't, and once we do we are in the hands of fate, or powers even more inscrutable, the best thing is to shut up about it. Fear of losing our luggage, however, fear of never again seeing articles of clothing, books, papers, exotic toiletries and other personal possessions dear to our heart and necessary to our well-being, is not only rational, it enjoins a sacred obligation on those to whom they are entrusted to look after them with their lives.

I lost luggage once on a flight from London to Darwin. It was three degrees under when I left, wearing brogues, woollen socks, and a three-piece suit woven of Harris tweed, and it was 100 degrees over when I arrived. Not having anything to change into I stayed in the shower for four days, along with a couple of redback spiders and a frog, until the luggage arrived, every item of it damp. For this inconvenience the airline paid me an allowance which just covered the cost of the soap.

Lose my luggage and you give me 5,000 smackers – that should be the invariable rule. Notes in the hand, no questions asked. We would then discover how easy it is never to mislay so much as a luggage label. I know people who believe baggage handlers send cases on wrong planes to wrong countries just for the fun of it, out of pure unmotivated malice, or envy if your cases are made from the eye-pouches of the Komodo dragon. We live in a bitter, querulous society. If Naomi Campbell, who wants for nothing, can be in a rage most of the time, why shouldn't a poor baggage handler resident in Hounslow also smoulder with resentment every time his eye alights on a suede portmanteau bound for the presidential suite at the Cipriani?

I used to consider this a calumny against baggage handlers. Surely they are too busy to lose cases systematically, I thought. And the idea that they would take against a passenger simply on the cut of his luggage struck me as preposterous. But coming off a flight to Heathrow a few weeks ago I watched someone charged with clearing bags from a carousel – presumably belonging to passengers delayed in immigration, or lost in transit, or who had simply seen the weather and changed their minds about disembarking – manhandling them as though they had done him a personal injury, throwing them on top of one another, not regardless of any damage he might do them but with every intention of doing as much damage as he could.

My eyes were on my carousel; I had my own luggage to think about. But an outrage is an outrage, whether you're the victim of it or not. "Is that necessary?" I asked him.

He was mid-throw. "Why, is this yours?" The implication was clear – if it wasn't I should keep my nose out.

"Doesn't matter whose it is," I said. "It isn't necessary to throw them."

He said he wasn't. I said he was. A woman passenger with a little girl in a maroon beret corroborated what I had seen. The little girl had remarked on it. Why is that nasty man trying to hurt people's suitcases.

Now I am not Naomi Campbell. I don't kick or spit. But yes, I raised my voice. And it was then that a supervisor materialised. "He's chucking cases around," I told him.

"I didn't see that," he said, going into instant union solidarity mode.

"That's because you weren't here. I saw him. This little girl saw him."

"I didn't," he said, shrugging his shoulders at me. Naomi, Naomi, you should have been there. The original thrower threw me a defiant look. "You want to complain?"

"Yes," I said, "I do want to complain."

"Then I'll get you a complaint form." And he was gone. And didn't reappear.

So did I pursue it? No. Life's too short. And, with half the population armed, too dangerous. A couple of days later, sitting drinking coffee in the street, I watched the driver of a UPS van hurl boxes on to the pavement. Some were marked "fragile". I didn't have the energy to remark upon his system of delivery. Maybe it didn't matter, maybe the boxes contained copies of Heat magazine or plastic dollies with Posh Spice faces, in which case hurl away. But of course I should have gone into package rage mode. If not me, who? Then again, since the UPS man was already at war with the world – else why the violence – what would it have achieved to compound rage with rage?

According to her friend Donald Trump, Naomi Campbell needs help. "She has a little anger management problem," he says. Don't we all. I don't doubt she was provoked. We are all provoked. If not by disappointment and inequality, then just by one another. Somewhere along the line we have mislaid the idea of doing unto others as we would have them do to us. Maybe we mislaid it, along with modesty and disdain for riches, when we mislaid religion. Wasn't it Dostoyevsky who said that without God all things are permissible? It would seem that includes kicking the shit out of other people's belongings.