writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Even the rich and powerful can feel left out in Davos

The Independent, January 29th 2011

The Saturday column

That invitation to Davos – did yours get lost in the post? Yes, mine too. Funny that, because David Cameron’s arrived. And Nick Clegg’s.

In fact, le tout political and business elite of the world has been schmoozing in the Swiss resort since Tuesday evening, discussing “shared norms for the new reality”, apparently. Except I doubt that they are. I bet what they’re really concerned about is whether or not they’ve been invited to the Google party.

You don’t have to be unsuccessful to be insecure. Here’s Steve Case, founder of AOL, on Davos anxiety: “You always feel like you are in the wrong place at Davos, like there is some better meeting going on somewhere in one of the hotels that you really ought to be at. Like the real Davos is happening in secret somewhere.”

It’s an odd thing in life that the most exclusive gatherings can feel the most excluding, even if you’re in them. The 99.999999999 per cent of us who don’t get asked to Davos assume that, once you’re there, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with Bill Clinton and Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie. In practice, you might just catch sight of them on a stage somewhere (as long as you’ve got up at 7.30am on the first day to book your place) but after that they’ll be whisked to the VVVIP room, which not even Very Very Important People get to visit. And their evenings will be spent at an intimate dinner in a private chalet, not in the cheese fondue restaurant at the bottom of the hotel.

The lapel badges at Davos are colour-coded according to your importance. So if you have a plain white badge, for instance, it signifies you’re a wife, which means no one will talk to you at all. The organisers might as well be straight with it and simply label the badges in order of social desirability: Appendage, Loser, Dull Middle-Ranker, Rich But Boring, Successful CEO and World Statesman.

You can, of course, pay to get better access, but boy, will it cost you. For a CEO to have “basic” membership of the World Economic Forum at Davos, which only allows him (for it usually is a him) to mingle with the hoi polloi, costs $71,000. To be invited to private sessions, he has to upgrade to “industry associate” status, costing a cool $156,000. If he wants to bring a colleague, he can’t just buy another $19,000 entry ticket. He has to become an “industry partner”, making it $301,000 for two.

And that doesn’t include flights, hotel or food. The burghers of Davos are canny, and know they can charge extortionate prices when the shindig is in town. So, for instance, the restaurant at the Posthotel demands a minimum spend of £130 a head. A bog-standard, package-holiday ski hotel will cost you several hundred pounds a night, but even Nobel prize-winners can’t get into the smarter ones.

As Anya Schiffrin, author and wife of the esteemed economist Joseph Stiglitz, writes: “We’ve tried for years to get a room at the Congress Hotel [which is right by the conference centre] but, of course, we’ve failed. A few years ago my husband’s secretary even argued that my husband’s back surgery meant he needed to avoid falls. We were ready to produce a doctor’s note but her request never even made it that far.”

Those who haven’t booked the requisite year in advance, or don’t have the right connections to bag a hotel room in Davos itself, find that they have to endure the ultimate humiliation: slumming it in Klosters, a half-hour taxi ride away. This is not, apparently, something that you readily admit to.

The Davos organisers have become obsessed with creating more and more stratified networks of attendees, and then further exclusive subsets. So, for instance, you can be invited as a journalist, but unless you’re then dubbed a “media leader”, you’re no one. You won’t be able to get into the sessions in which VVIPs will talk to you. Recently they’ve created a new, higher level of “international media council” for even better access. You can only imagine the resentment it causes among the brigade of hacks.

I’m sure the Cannes Film Festival is exactly the same. And, while you might think it amazing to be invited to the Oscars ceremony, most guests probably find that they’re stuck at the back, behind a pillar, feeling hopelessly inferior to Brad Pitt or Nicole Kidman.

What they may not realise, though, is that Pitt and Kidman feel inferior to someone, too. Pitt has twice been nominated for an Oscar, but has never won. Kidman was Best Actress in 2002, but hasn’t clutched a gold statuette since. Does that make her feel she’s on a downward trajectory? Is she fearful of being overtaken by Natalie Portman? I wouldn’t be surprised.

I once visited the main harbour in the chic Caribbean island of St Barts. Moored side by side were 10 of the most enormous super-yachts I had ever seen – each the size of a huge house, four or five storeys high. They were teeming with staff and gleaming with wealth. Just a little further down the gangway were 30 more such Leviathans, except these were a storey lower than the gargantuan ones. Immediately they looked somehow lesser.

“I bet the man who bought this boat thought it was the biggest ever,” remarked one of my children about the second-tier model. It was a very good lesson: however rich you are, there will always be someone with a bigger boat than you. So if you’re the sort of person who strives to own the biggest boat, you’re pretty much bound to be disappointed.

It’s a good lesson too for all those tycoons slip-sliding their way round Davos this week. If they’re constantly berating themselves for not being at the most exclusive party, they’re dooming themselves to a lifetime of feeling inadequate. Much better to celebrate the success that got them there in the first place. Oh, and I hear the Google party is horribly hot and crowded.

What will bookshelves of the future look like?

This week Amazon announced that its e-book sales on Kindle had overtaken paperbacks in the US for the first time. It’s quite an epic moment. We also heard that, this year, the Man Booker Prize judges are going to be given e-readers with the books downloaded on to them.

If you have more than 100 novels to plough through, I do see the point of carrying them all in one slim gadget. What’s more, they’re not necessarily books that the judges would have chosen to buy. But how ready are the rest of us to give up the lure of paper?

One of the delights of books is that they not only furnish your life; they define it. Run your eye along someone else’s bookshelves and you immediately get a feel for the sort of person they are.

We used to do the same as teenagers, flipping our way through our friends’ album collections. My LPs now languish in a dusty box, and my music taste is hidden away on my computer. Will the same happen with our books? If, in 20 years’ time, we’re all reading voraciously on Kindles and iPads – or whatever has replaced them – then no one will any longer be able to judge us on our literary tastes. And our bookshelves will become an extraordinary time capsule: a freeze-framed portrait of the people we were in 2011.

Strength in numbers – that’ll help women

We women are tougher than Andy Gray and Richard Keys think. Far from being deterred by the Sky Sports presenters’ sexist bollocks about assistant referee Sian Massey, women have apparently inundated the Football Association with applications to train as referees.

This is great news. It’s not enough for women to show – as Sian Massey did – that they can get their fluffy little heads around such complexities as the offside rule. They have to do it en masse.

If only a few women are represented in any walk of life, then anything that just one of them does is seen as representative of the whole gender. You only need one duff woman on a board for a chairman to say, “You see? I always said women weren’t good enough.” Whereas a duff man is just, well, a bad choice for the board.

Only when a female referee is no more worthy of remark than a female car driver will the obnoxious views of the Grays of this world have a chance of being stamped out. Mind you, we still hear lame jokes about women drivers, despite their having a much safer accident record. Maybe there’s no hope. What a depressing thought.

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