Category Archives: History

A Latin lesson for the European Monetary Union

coinsDiary date: 13th October, 1985

Before I returned to university for my second year of French and Swedish, my friend Adrian and I decided we had time to spend a month seeing the sights of Europe courtesy of an InterRail card. There’s enough material in my diary for those four weeks alone to keep followthehumming going for years – from the quaint way we tried to communicate with friends and family while we travelled, through to the miles we walked just trying to find a map. One very concrete souvenir of the trip was a small bag of leftover foreign coins and notes which has spent the intervening years living with my diaries in the bottom of my wardrobe – and which these days contains the cash remnants of just about every country I’ve ever visited.

It’s all a far cry from today’s European Monetary Union and its near-ubiquitous Euro. Holidays and business trips are now devoid of the complications and local colour once provided by Francs, Deutschmarks, Schillings, Guilders, Markka, Drachma, Lira, Pesetas and the rest.

But it turns out that monetary union in Europe isn’t a new idea. The most recent attempt at something similar was in the mid-1860’s, when France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland formed the Latin Monetary Union and agreed that their various currencies could be exchanged at a fixed rate. Silver and gold coins were minted according to strict regulations governing weight, fineness and denomination that made them interchangeable.

The club became larger a couple of years later when Spain and Greece joined in, and bigger still when Serbia, San Marino, Romania, Bulgaria, and (curiously) Venezuela were admitted in 1889.

It all sounds fine in principle, but as ever it wasn’t plain sailing. Arbitrageurs were needed to manipulate the market as the price of silver or gold fluctuated – a process which involved things like driving up the value of silver by removing coins from circulation or bringing additional gold to the mint to be turned into more coins.

The Union’s signatories didn’t help themselves either. Some members (mentioning no names, Greece and the Papal Treasury) started minting coins with less than the requisite quantity of silver, and then exchanging them for coins from other countries that had been minted in accordance with the regulations – all in the interests of a quick profit.  The tension between the changing price of silver relative to gold and the fixed exchange rate that operated within the Union eventually meant that it made sense to have silver minted into coins which could then be used to buy gold at a discounted rate. By then, the writing was well and truly on the wall.

By around 1878, the value of silver had declined so much that the minting of large silver coins was stopped altogether, meaning that the Union was, to all intents and purposes, on a Gold Standard.

In practical terms, the LMU lasted until 1914 and the chaos of the First World War, although it remained a legal entity until it was formally abandoned as late as 1927.

Just 28 years after my first European odyssey, my bag of coins feels genuinely anachronistic. Yet the lessons of the LMU certainly remain relevant in today’s turbulent financial markets. Questions of political and monetary union and the subsidisation of weaker economies are just as important today as they were at the tail-end of the nineteenth century.

Wimbledon: normal service is resumed

WimbledonDiary date: 2nd July, 1985

If my diary has it right, I think I may have watched more of the 1985 Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships than I have of any tournament since – including the one that’s happening right now.

The reason? I was waiting.


The first year of my course in French and Scandinavian Studies had come to an end and I was about to head off for the Summer to work as a cleaner on a Gothenburg dockyard. While I waited anxiously for departure day and the trip to Harwich to catch the ferry, I sat mesmerised by the goings-on in SW19 and tried not to think about how little Swedish I could actually speak.

Somehow, that little patch of grass in London was like a haven of stability just as everything was about to change – reassurance that things would turn out for the best.

So, in honour of the hallowed turf that helped keep my nerves at bay, here are five Wimbledon men’s service-related facts of the kind that might have kept me occupied for at least a minute or two of my maiden voyage across the North Sea.

Meanwhile, I’m off to catch that ferry.

1. Height equals speed

As a top player, more centimetres in height generally equals more speed on your serve. In fact, the link is so strong that an analysis of Wimbledon statistics from 2009 showed that the height of a player in centimetres is almost exactly equal to his average first service speed in kilometres per hour!

2. Aces high

More aces are served in the men’s singles at Wimbledon than at any other slam tournament – the US Open comes next, then the Australian, then the French. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Wimbledon aces shot up from about 1,900 to around 2,900. The number of aces per tournament has grown steadily at all the other slams too.

3. Speedy slams

In 1999, the average men’s first service speed at Wimbledon was about 15 mph faster than at the French Open. But by 2009, things had evened out, and the average first service speed at all four grand slam tournaments was almost the same at around 116mph. The record for the fastest serve ever at Wimbledon belongs to Taylor Dent and stands at 148mph.

4. Falling  faults

Despite the general increase in service speeds – particularly at the Australian, French and US Opens – the number of double faults has fallen sharply in recent years. In 2001, the double fault count at Wimbledon was about 1,600. By 2007, it had halved to about 800.

5. Second try

The average men’s second service speed has been steadily increasing since 2000 in all Grand Slam tournaments except Wimbledon, where it has remained relatively steady at about 97 mph.

Just for the record, while I was waiting for my slow boat to Gothenburg back in 1985, Boris Becker beat Kevin Curren to win his first ever Grand Slam title, and in the Ladies’ final, Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert-Lloyd.

(Data courtesy of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney and; Image credit: Spiralz)

Revisiting the Munich Massacre

Almost immediately after I left for university, my parents began the process of moving to Munich, where Dad was starting a new job. By this week in 1985, he was already living in Germany, so I made my first trip to see how he was getting on.

Dad at the Olympiapark in Munich

Then – as now – I was a fan of the Olympic Games, and more than anything else I wanted to visit Munich’s iconic Olympiapark, with its sweeping, transparent canopies and miles of exposed metal ropes. The park was as memorable as I expected, but the atmosphere of the place was also suffused with the aftermath of what had become known as the Munich Massacre.

Black September militant at the 1972 Olympic GamesOn September 5th 1972, eleven days into a sporting spectacle which the Germans had subtitled, ‘the Happy Games,’ eight Palestinians belonging to the Black September movement broke into the Olympic village – just a stone’s throw from the Olympiapark – and took hostage nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials. They immediately demanded the release of 234 prisoners held in Israeli jails plus the founders of the German Red Army Faction, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. There followed a stalemate over some 18 hours in which events in the village were relayed live around the world – at one point even alerting the kidnappers, who were watching too, to the fact that a police rescue attempt was under way.

After a series of failed negotiations and offers from the German authorities, the Palestinians and their hostages were transferred by helicopter to the military base at nearby Fürstenfeldbruck, where they had asked for a plane to take them to Cairo. The Germans hastily planned a further armed assault involving snipers and a fake plane crew, coordinated via the airport’s control tower.

The rescue was a disaster. The police had underestimated the number of Palestinians based on earlier reports and found themselves short of snipers, the disguised plane crew decided at the last minute to abandon their mission, and the kidnappers realised almost immediately that an attack was planned. After a chaotic gun battle and a grenade explosion in one of the helicopters, all the hostages and five of the eight militants were dead.

Reporting on events as they unfolded for ABC in America, sports reporter Jim McKay’s description of the outcome eventually came to define the terrible events of that night:

We just got the final word … you know, when I was a kid, my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

In the aftermath, IOC President Avery Brundage took the controversial decision to allow the Games to continue, famously saying, “The Games must go on.”

The three surviving kidnappers were imprisoned pending trial, but released a few weeks later in exchange for the passengers of a hijacked Lufthansa jet – events which many have claimed were staged.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich, tells the story of the Israeli reaction to the massacre, Operation Wrath of God, which targeted members of both Black September and the PLO – including those believed to be involved in the events in Munich. Only one of the attackers – Jamal Al-Gashey – is still believed to be alive, living in hiding somewhere in Africa.

The events of the 1972 Games were a watershed for the Olympic movement in terms of heightening security concerns and complicating sporting politics. As late as the Games of London 2012, the IOC rejected a campaign for a minute’s silence to mark the 40th anniversary of Munich, with President Jacques Rogge stating that it would be “inappropriate.”

My visit to the Olympiapark in 1985 proved to be the first of many, but the stunning architecture and wonderful setting have always felt tarnished by the events of thirteen years earlier – events which originate in a conflict which sadly shows no sign of coming to a definitive end.

Lessons of the Black Ball Final

Diary date: 6th May, 1985

The impact of change over time is a consistent theme on followthehumming, but today I salute that bastion of continuity and tradition: sport. My diary tells me that around this time 28 years ago, I was sitting in a crowded room watching the final moments of the ‘black ball final‘ – the astonishing climax to the 1985 World Snooker Championship.

Steve Davis was the dominant player of the day, the unflappable defending world champion. His opponent was Dennis Taylor, the genial Irish challenger with the specially-made glasses which made you wonder why no-one had ever thought of them before. After two dramatic days during which Taylor had consistently lagged behind, the score was finally tied at 17 frames each with just one left to play. Shortly after midnight, with a wonderful theatrical flourish, the final frame then came down to the very last ball, the black. After an edgy few minutes, Davis was presented with a respectable chance to seal the match, but missed it. Taylor stepped in, held his nerve, and completed the unlikeliest of comebacks. Incredibly, the moment he was crowned world champion was the first time he had been ahead in the entire match.

Back in 1985, snooker was close to the peak of its popularity, and somehow the final had captured the imagination of much of the country. 18.5 million people watched the concluding 68-minute frame in the early hours of an otherwise unremarkable Monday morning – a figure that remains a post-midnight audience record for any UK TV channel.

In 2013, the same game has literally just reached its climax, with ‘Rocket’ Ronnie O’Sullivan beating the unheralded Barry Hawkins in the world final in the very same venue, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Apart from the cut of the waistcoats and the irritatingly prominent sponsorship, little has really changed.

While the rest of the world races on at the breakneck pace epitomised by Moore’s Law, sport draws much of its appeal from a sense of continuity and an ability to compare today with the years that have preceded it. When this is threatened – in particular by improvements in technology, equipment, training and preparation – steps are often taken to ensure the essence of the game is retained. When the increasing speed of the Wimbledon serve began to dominate to the point of boredom, the grass was made slower. When hi-tech golf clubs started increasing average driving distances, tees began to move backwards. Even when significant changes are proposed, like rugby union’s move to five points for a try, American Football’s decision to move the goalposts to the back of the end zone, or baseball’s introduction of the designated hitter, they’re almost always made to safeguard the spectacle that the original rules intended.

I’ve written before about how technological advance sometimes means fundamental change – which is why I’ve suggested that reading a book and reading on a kindle may actually be two different things. But largely thanks to the enthusiasm of fans, players and governing bodies, the world of sport generally still manages to remain joyfully exempt from any serious break with its past.

Calling places, not people

Diary date: 2nd March, 1985

Remember what it was like to make a telephone call to a place, not a person? Here’s how it was. . .

[A public payphone rings in a crowded student common room in a hall of residence. Sarah looks round and realises that no-one else is going to answer it. She picks it up.]


“Oh hi, it’s Andrew’s mum here. I was wondering if he was there?”

“Hi Andrew’s mum! It’s Sarah here. Give me a second and I’ll see if I can find him for you.”

[Sarah turns to the room.]

“Anybody seen Andrew?”

[Various shakes of the head. No-one replies. Sarah goes to stand by the stairs.] 

“Tony! Are you up there? Tony! Is Kirsty with you? Andrew’s mum’s on the phone and I was wondering if she knew if he was in? Tony? Oh, for goodness sake!”

[Sarah returns to the phone.]

“Andrew’s mum? Hi, it’s Sarah here again. Really sorry, but I’m going to have to go and have a look. Can you hang on?”

“Yes of course.”

“OK. I won’t be a minute.”

[Sarah runs up three flights of stairs to Andrew’s room and knocks on his door.]

“Andrew? It’s Sarah. Your mum’s on the phone. Andrew?”

[Andrew appears at the door, looking hung over.]

“Thanks, Sarah. Can you tell her I’ll be down in a minute?”

[Andrew pulls his clothes on and drags himself downstairs five minutes later. He picks up the phone, trying to ignore everyone else in the room.]

“Hi Mum.”

2nd March, 2013

. . . and here’s how it is now:

[Andrew is asleep in bed. His mobile rings. He is slightly hung over and winces at the ringtone. He reaches over, picks it up and looks at the screen. It’s his mum. He groans, presses reject, rolls over, and tries to get back to sleep.]