04:58am at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. All going to plan so far – the plan being to speak at InnoXcell’s eDiscovery conference in Singapore on Monday, to attend its closing party, and then to moderate a Tuesday session at EMC²’s Momentum Berlin 2011 before moving on to Paris to give another talk two days later. Some would say that this is an absurd way of life. Maybe, but I do not have to commute every morning on a crowded train run by incompetent idiots nor sit in traffic jams to go to work. The price is the occasional journey like this.
Planning this kind of travel is no different from managing any other project. It has a series of waypoints (the events); one or more conditions must be fulfilled before a subsequent stage can begin (you can’t set off for the airport before your panel session has ended for example); there are resourcing implications (of cash and energy); there are semi-informed gambles (do I pay for an upgrade or will they give me one anyway?) and risk assessments (will this plane land in time for me to catch that one?).
On the whole you can face most reasonably forseeable contingencies with a handful of things – a passport, at least two credit/debit cards with deep limits, a smart phone, whatever laptop / iPad / cabling components keep you working, and cloud-based access to speaking materials, to contact lists and to the calendar which tells you which country comes next, with flight numbers, hotel references etc. You can lose or forget everything else – a theory I was about to test as I stood by the dawn carousel at Terminal 3, with two hours to go till the next flight out of Terminal 5.
There are few things which I rush for (another pre-requisite for this kind of travel is taking it slowly), but one of them is to be close to the front of the queues at the world’s immigration counters. Heathrow’s are understaffed as usual – contempt for the customer has become habitual among the civil service managerial layer which lays off customer-facing staff whilst awarding itself bonuses, and which knows very well how many passengers are due to pass through this morning; there won’t be lamp-posts enough for this tier of pen-pushers come the revolution. My curse has a gratifying effect – senior Border Agency paper-shufflers, including the man in charge of Heathrow, are suspended three days later; it seems that they have been waving through enough illegal immigrants to populate Cambridge even as they make British citizens, business visitors and tourists stand in long queues.
I notice a certain ambiguity on re-reading this last paragraph or, rather, an infelicity caused by the proximity of two concepts which may be taken as one. Dealing with or reading of a certain kind of public servant (by no means all) makes me think of that famous picture of Mussolini and Clara Petacci hanging upside down in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. I expect I’d let the pen-pushers off with a good kicking if the opportunity actually arose, but I find thinking of it a good release from the tension – in my case evidenced by a literal clenching and unclenching of my fists – caused by the unthinking stupidity of some of the useless little creatures whose incompetence in office affects our lives. It is a coincidence that my reference to lamp-posts should have been followed a sentence later by the information that Border Agency officials had been “suspended”.
This trip had been particularly complicated in packing terms. In addition to four conferences or sessions for which formal clothes were required, the journey included standing on Australian beaches, going to the opera in Sydney, a tourist’s trip round hot, wet Singapore, and a night train from Berlin to Paris, both places predicted to be cold and wet. To add to the clothing variants required for all this, Singapore is a place where even I can be induced to shop for clothes, not so much for the prices as for the range, the willingness of shops to make overnight alterations, and the presence of my wife, without whom I am rarely brave enough to buy clothes.
So the bag for which I wait at Terminal 3’s carousels contains pretty well all the decent clothes which I possess, together with my camera and other photographic equipment. Some of the clothes still have their price labels on them; others are old favourites. The cuff-links which my wife gave me for our 25th wedding anniversary are in there.
Sharp elbows and long legs help me to be one of the first at the carousel. Bags and people appear from different directions, meet up and leave together, until I am the only person left in an empty hall, no bag in sight. By the time I have filled in the forms (credit for helpfulness to this part at least of BA’s baggage-handling team) I have less than 90 minutes to be in my seat at distant Terminal 5, with a smoke and an espresso to fit in en route.
So I arrived in Berlin, that most formal of cities, with no clothes beyond those I stood up in, to take part in a major conference for a large international company known to err on the side of formality. Tegel Airport was hung with banners which made it clear that EMC²’s was the biggest show in town. Most of the 1,000-plus delegates were in smart dark Euro-suits with sober ties and polished shoes – this was the sort of hotel which has a shoe-shine machine by the lobby. The clothes donned in Singapore included a large pair of black boots, casual trousers, my scruffiest shirt and a pale jacket which, whilst bought at one of San Francisco’s trendiest boutiques, had been worn continually for over a month, including being slept in for 27,0000 miles in the air. The plan had included an early check-in and a sleep; instead I toured Berlin looking for a shirt. The show must go on. I will write separately about my panel session with EMC².
Two days later, I was in Paris at the invitation of Pinsent Masons to talk to the Franco-British Lawyers Society about eDiscovery in the context of the UK Bribery Act. The venue was the Bibliothèque de l’Ordre des Avocats in the French Court of Justice, a place which rivals the Royal Courts of Justice for Gothic grandeur (especially at night when you are alone in its cavernous corridors). If the Germans are formal, the French are smart, and it took me some time to find another appropriate shirt. I said above that you can cope with anything if your credit cards are deep enough. Two of mine, with a combined credit sufficient to buy most of the shop’s stock, were rejected by one of those snarling middle-aged Frenchwomen who do so much to define the English view of France, and who appeared not to notice that I was the fourth middle-aged, middle-class, respectable-looking person whose cards she had rejected in three minutes. My bank subsequently confirmed that there had been no rejection, and I hope that the shop lost a great deal of money that day before realising that it was its systems, and not its customers’ cards, which were at fault.
My other rule of travel, incidentally, along with not rushing, is to assume that everything will work out all right in the end – an instinct sorely tested when you stand in the rain in a foreign city, in the clothes you slept in, with €20 in your pocket. Looking up, I saw a branch of my favourite Paris shirt shop, which accepted my card at once.
When I came out of the Court of Justice late that night, it was pouring with rain and there were no cabs in sight. Amongst the clothes which I had dragged round the world in my mislaid case was my trench coat and hat, carried specifically with this in mind. No matter, I thought, as I stood under a dripping tree by the Seine. My luggage had by then been found and sent home, and the last commitment was discharged. All I had to do in the morning was sip an espresso in a pavement cafe opposite the Gare du Nord before boarding the Eurostar for home.