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|Wednesday 10th September 2003|
Kevin's Davos Diary
Rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful, Today editor Kevin Marsh has packed his knapsack and headed to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Here's his travelling diary.
DIARY ENTRY 3:
THE TROUBLED JOURNEY HOME
We knew it was all going wrong when we arrived – already behind schedule - in the small Swiss town of Chur.
Being behind schedule in Switzerland is almost a crime. But we’d been told at Davos Platz station there might be demonstrations on the line – so there was a plan B (there is always a plan B in Switzerland). To go about a third of the way down the valley on the train. And then by bus to Landquart, the junction where you get the main line train for Zurich.
It seemed a good plan – but it unravelled minutes into the journey when the conductor told us we were now into plan C which was to get off at Klosters … just two or three stops down the line. It didn't seem likely, though, that the anarchists and communists and idealistic teenagers who wanted to smash capitalism and replace it with something nice had got that close.
At Klosters, there was a bus – and another change of plan. Rather than Landquart, we were now going to another town, Chur, to pick up the Zurich train. It wasn’t clear why. Nor was it clear why the bus drove down the valley side by side with the train we’d just left. And with no sign of anyone trying to block the line.
A few kilometres further on, it did become clear why the anarchists and communists and idealistic teenagers – them - who wanted to smash capitalism – us - could never hope to mount a protest on the line.
Guarding the bottom end of the valley is a very, very narrow gorge between two massive cliffs. There’s no way over or round – and the only way through is the railway line, an old, narrow valley road beside it and a new tunnel beside that. All heavily populated with police, barriers and even tanks.
There were police in Chur, too, waddling around the bus and train station in body armour that had been made to measure for completely different people. And they were not just a precaution.
Right next to the station was the largest open space in Chur - the place where the anarchists and communists and idealistic teenagers who wanted to smash capitalism were holding the noisy demonstration they would have held in Davos had they been able to get there.
Somehow, all that plans A-C had achieved was to divert "us" – the advance guard of homebound world capitalists - around all the places there was no "them" - anarchists and communists and idealistic teenagers who wanted to smash capitalism - and decant us into the one place in the whole of Switzerland where there were.
In truth, they were noisier than they were heated for all their red flags, polyglot revolutionary slogans, whistles and firecrackers - the lack of overt hostility probably explained by the cloud of marijuana smoke hanging over them.
But however docile and incipiently paranoid, they were marching and we were being marched against - divided into them and us by the width of a railway track.
For the time being.
Before the train arrived the demo ended and the communists, anarchists and idealistic teenagers who wanted to smash capitalism who HAD been over there were now over here. Anti-capitalist warriors standing side by side with their sworn enemy.
It was a crush on the platform and an even bigger crush on the train where we sat in the seats we’d paid for and they filled the seats they hadn’t paid for as well as the aisles, the spaces between and in some cases the luggage racks overhead. Whether we liked it or not – and plenty didn’t – we and the protesters were now linked in a common purpose of sorts. Getting to Zurich – though it seemed unlikely they and we had the same idea about how that should be achieved.
It was a strange atmosphere. Tense but resigned – on our part at least – and oddly polite. An elderly couple decided it was too much and tried to leave the train. The blond, dreadlocked and pierced enemy of capitalism who’d been sitting on the floor between their seats helped the man pull on his coat and gently took the arm of his wife to help her step over the bodies.
Another began passing their luggage out of the train window. Then it became obvious they wouldn’t be able to get off, so their luggage was carefully handed back and they were helped out of their coats and back into their seats.
It was out of key with the black balaclavas, the bullhorns, the flags, the spray paint cans, the carrier bags of stones and the boards with slogans all of which contained the word SMASH – even if the rest was in French or German.
Common purpose of sorts we may have had but there was no way we were going to leave on schedule – as far as I know, no-one’s ever said “say what you like about the anarchists but at least they get the trains to run on time.”
Two aborted efforts to leave ended with someone pulling the emergency cord and the train no more then ten yards nearer Zurich.
It was probably going to be like this all the way, I thought – I was certain to miss my flight to London. But in some messy way and at some unforeseeable time we would probably get there.
I tried hard to imagine a conversation about timekeeping or the ways of trains – tickets and that sort of thing - with Luc, the young Frenchman chain-smoking joints in the seat next to me. I imagined even more easily the dead ends our conversation would reach.
And then, an hour late, we set off and kept going. Slowly. Getting to Zurich in about eight hours kind of slowly. When we stopped at the next station - Landquart - I hoped some, if not all, our fellow passengers would get off here.
Some did - mostly to cover the platform side of the train with spray-painted slogans, politely asking passengers to pull-up the windows so that they could a) write what they wanted and b) not asphyxiate anyone … though the marijuana smoke was already doing a pretty effective job of that.
The train didn't move and the crowd on the train became first a crowd part on and part off it … and then mostly a crowd off it.
Now the life of a crowd is a strange thing a crowd of anarchists even stranger. It milled up and down the platform – by definition without leadership and unsure of its purpose. It shouted. It waved others off the train and others joined them – until we “normal” passengers had got what we wanted: the train to ourselves, them on the outside of it and the restoration of something like order inside our little world.
It wasn't as simple as that.
That common purpose of sorts that there had been we were all on the train together disappeared once "us" and "them" became separate one again. And the train was transformed from a world we'd uncomfortably shared into a symbol of order and authority.
Soon the windows on the platform side were covered with spray-paint and they were starting on the track-side too. And the inevitable happened - they blocked the line. We were going nowhere - not on that train.
But this was Switzerland and someone had a plan d - escape by a tunnel underneath the track, a short walk to a waiting bus and another diversion around a demonstration that, this time, actually existed.
The bus pulled away and though we WEF capitalist conspirators were now about four hours behind schedule, we were relieved and started calling wives and friends on our mobile phones - something we hadn't dared do on the train.
But in the same way that I’d wondered at Davos whether we really were making the world a better place even in a small way, I wondered now at the receding sight of the graffiti daubed, halted train … the line of anarchists and communists and idealistic teenagers across the track … the ranks of armoured riot police shuffling slowly towards them … and the inevitable, ritual clash to come … what it was, exactly, that they’d smash that night and whether that would make the world a better place even in a small way … and whether it would have been better to have tried that conversation with Luc and shared with him my take on time-keeping or the ways of trains.
DIARY ENTRY 2:
STATURE AND HOW TO JUDGE IT
Which bit of the instruction "no ties" do Americans not understand.
And it IS the Americans.
It's clear on all the World Economic Forum literature: "casual or sports wear suitable for a mountain resort - no ties". There's even a sign just inside the door of the main conference centre which instructs all wearing ties to pay a fine of 5 Swiss Francs.
The Americans breeze by it assuming that - like so many things - it doesn't apply to them though in the end it seems they're happy to pay the fine since it raised a total of SFr 10,000 … that's 2,000 breaches of the no-tie rule.
Intellectually, of course, no-one takes their tie off. Some wear several. Theodore Zeldin, for example, who chaired the scariest session of the whole Forum. It was called "Clearing the Data Smog" and was about the discord and confusion that too much information causes. Not for Theodore - he got the session off to a crisp start by declaring there wasn't too much information in the world there was too little and that he didn't understand why people insisted on finding the right answers to questions because the wrong answer was more important than the right one.
But then it got really scary and Eric Schmidt - the man who brought you Google (and American children don't 'research' an essay any more, they 'Google' it - true) - predicted a near future where we would all carry around all the information in the world (and he eerily DID mean all) in a little pocket thing the size of an MP3 player.
I tried to put these two images together - of having strapped to your waist all the information that's ever existed and using it to find all the wrong answers to all the right questions.
I ran away.
To the session on North Korean nuclear programmes.
There's a rule of thumb in Davos that the more slowly someone speaks the more important they're likely to be. Where two important people are on a panel and they haven't agreed the hierarchy of important ness in advance they establish it on the hoof.
Now Mohammed El Baradei, the DG of the International Atomic Energy Authority, is normally a brisk and precise speaker - he's done plenty of interviews for Today so we know.
But not when he's on a platform with Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa and they haven't played’ scissors paper stone’ before climbing onto the platform.
By the last half hour, the pauses had become so long that during one of them, the Japanese contingent in front of me stood up, folded their coats over their arms and bowed politely to the moderator assuming it was all over.
It is, of course, all about words. And words expressed ostensibly in English.
Not the English you and I speak, though. A kind of meta-English that has the merit - rather like Sally Bowles' German - of appearing easy to speak, initially comprehensible but in the end devoid of all meaning.
And the higher you are up whatever organisation you represent, the more fluently you speak this meta language - though slowly (see above).
It's not just individual words and phrases like "paradigm" or "data mining" or "value driver" that leave you thinking "I used to know what those words meant." It's whole sentences and sentiments. Like "winners prepare for the last war, losers for the next".
Or … "Governments make better policemen than farmers."
Or … "Is European business different from American ? I have 40,000 people work for my company in America and they cook with water."
I tried to forbid this sort of thing in one my own sessions especially the one on "A Global Media Renaissance" which brought together the kind of people I would never normally meet: Lowry Mays of Clear Channel, Mike Powell the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (Chairman Powell to you), Patricia Mitchell who runs the Public Broadcasting Service in the US, Arne Wessberg who runs the European Broadcasting Union … oh and Kazuo Ishiguro and David Puttnam.
Now all of these people clearly should have been at a meeting like the World Economic Forum on account of their achievements and their fame whereas I clearly should not have been on account of my lack of either. Which made it particularly pleasing to hop about the room pretending to be in some way in control of their conversation and asking coruscatingly penetrating questions and haughtily instructing them to "hang on, I'll come to you in a minute" which in Chairman Powell's case is something not even the CEO of Disney dare normally try.
But of course I had the microphone and the clipboard and that fleeting respect interviewees give to interviewers before it dawns on them that the buffoon with said microphone and clipboard hasn't the faintest idea of what he's doing.
I really don't know if we were making the world a better place - though I think we did in a Michael Howard sort of way. (You remember his "prison works" speech and the thesis that burglars couldn't burgle while they were banged up??).
For about half a week or so Davos added something to the sum of human harmony by removing from general circulation about 1,200 American ties and 2,500 people who would otherwise argue in public, hold conversations at the top of narrow stairs, block corridors, hold mobile phone conversations in the middle of seminars, and walk backwards downstairs.
DIARY ENTRY 1:
THE ROAD TO DAVOS
The first thing you should know is that Davos is very, very beautiful and has just had the best snowfall of the year. Probably of any year and given the worst predictions of global warming probably the best it will ever have until mammoths return.
The other thing you should know is that I am here to work and that I have brought no skiwear of any kind.
What they never tell you about things like this - the World Economic Forum or British Party Conferences or EU summits or UN crises - is what a trek it is to get here.
Obviously it isn't for the likes of the President of Pakistan or the British Foreign Secretary or the CEO of Big Corp Inc because they fly in by private jet and helicopter. Amusingly, the organisers of the WEF sent me details of this service too. I thought about it for a while. Then thought about the other way - economy fare to Zurich £39 each way train to Davos £40 return - and it was a tough call.
The economy flight to Zurich came and went but the train leg - three hours through that part of Switzerland you never think about - was a joy and a revelation.
First the ticket. Or rather, the precise itinerary that came with it detailing every train, every change, every arrival and departure time, train number and platform.
Second the train - trains - left on time. Exactly on time. At every station. To the second.
Third I was able to spend all but the final leg in a "quiet carriage". Actually, a silent carriage. Here, mobile phones, personal stereos, laptops with the sound on and even talking are banned. Which made my fellow passengers' visits to the lavatory that adjoined the silent carriage a revelation too far. But this was all the result - a leaflet explained - of passenger consultation and instead of ignoring passengers wants and needs in the way that non-Swiss railways do they actually did something people had asked for.
Fourth the lavatories. I had forgotten them but they haven't changed since I first came to Switzerland in 1969 or at least the ones in the small regional trains haven't. See above for why I didn't try the one on the big train. But on the small train there was something a tad alarming and then reassuring about lifting the seat and seeing the snow and the sleepers scudding by a few feet below. None of this U-bend or tank lark. What you see is what you hit. Also none of this tap-not-working stuff in the basins because there aren't taps. There's a pump. You want water you work for it - which sort of set the tone for what was to come in the temporary capital of Anglo-Saxon capitalism.
What also set the tone was an encounter with the man who ran the train bar. They have a strange - but logical and efficient - system on Swiss trains, where a bar on wheels tours the upper deck of the train and when it's above your head if you're in the silent carriage a light comes on and an arrow directs you upstairs to where you can a) select refreshment and b) speak so that you can ask for it.
I do not speak German which I suspect is linked to having a grandfather who really did fight in two world wars though if that is the reason then I am ashamed of it. I am ashamed of it anyway, come to think of it and as of this night am even more ashamed.
The bar on wheels man was not Swiss but was - I think - Indian and the bulk of his business must be done in German or French and perhaps even Italian.
I stuttered something approximating a query as to whether he spoke English because if he didn't I would have to rely on those incoherent grunts that we're so good at. Obviously he did-but sensing that the absurd sounds I made of the lame German might have indicated that English wasn't my first language either, he reassured me that he spoke Dutch too. A global moment that made me wonder which of us it was who should be making his way to a ski resort to discuss the state of the globe and which pushing a bar on wheels about a train.
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