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Autobiographical Interlude

I am 25 years old and I am embarking on my first really responsible job. Serious things depend upon how well I work over the next few weeks – several years of environmental thinking are coming to a head. These days we'd call it a green initiative, but in the 1970s it is just another government programme, and not a very important one. Nevertheless I feel a deep sense of involvement. I've been working on things that can make a difference to the way the world lives, and my colleagues and I are about to report to our peers and make some suggestions for future actions. I am on my way to the first Governing Council meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). I am a member of the British delegation and I am nervous – it's my first time in such rarefied circles and it all sounds very diplomatic and scary. However I am the low man on the totem pole. I make the metaphorical tea. I take comfort in that thought – it makes me feel less exposed.

The Swissair flight from London to Geneva takes off exactly on time. Even abroad the Swiss are a superbly efficient nation. You can set your watch by their timetables. Geneva is in the French speaking part of Switzerland. Except for a very small enclave comprising about one percent of the population, the Swiss don't have a language of their own. Ever frugal, they use other people's languages instead. On the plane, I try to remember my schoolboy French but it all feels vague and foggy.

Geneva airport is clean and well organised. We pass through customs and immigration as if they are not there and we take a taxi to the hotel. It too is clean and well organised. The Governing Council meeting will take place at the Palais Des Nations; the old headquarters of the disgraced League Of Nations. We walk from the hotel; it isn't far.

We can see out over Lake Geneva. It seems to stretch on forever. Today the weather is crisp and clear and the beautiful single jet of the fountain sparkles in the sunlight as it reaches up with gorgeous elegance high into the sky. It seems to be trying to drown the clouds, and they hover nervously, eyeing the enormous column of water with deep suspicion. There is a multi-level car park under the lake, reached by brilliantly lit tunnels that burrow far underground. A very efficient (and typically Swiss) idea. I hope the roof never caves in under the weight of the water.

The Palais Des Nations is an old and elegant building with peacocks strutting proudly through the immaculately maintained gardens. Pompous diplomats arrive in shiny cars and the peacocks can see themselves reflected in the highly polished vehicles. This annoys them – enemies in the reflections! Screaming war cries, they charge forwards and peck furiously at the invaders. The drivers try in vain to shoo them away. Huge holes appear in the car doors. Automotive body shops in Geneva do a roaring trade in peacock repairs.

The Governing Council meeting takes place in a large auditorium with rows of flip top chairs banked up at an angle like seats in a cinema. We have tiny desks on which we can spread our papers. A plaque on the desks tells people that we are British. We have headphones to plug into small sockets built in to the desks. Through the headphones we can listen to the simultaneous translations of the speeches that the delegates are making. When we get bored with the speeches we switch to the Chinese translation, which none of us understands and which never fails to make us laugh. Hee, haa, hoe, hoo go the voices in our ears.

The translators are sitting in booths above the auditorium. Headphones are clamped firmly to their ears and they concentrate fiercely as they mutter into their microphones, turning the words that flow into their heads into words that flow out of their mouths. Ideally these words should form a continuous stream; they drop in at the top and they fall out at the bottom without a pause. Mostly this works well, except for those poor people who have to translate from the German.

Translators from the German have the hardest job of all. They have absolutely no idea what the speaker is saying until all the words are put into context by the verb. And in German, the verb is always the very last word in the sentence. Consequently the translators have to hold untold levels of seemingly unconnected subordinate clauses in their minds as they wait desperately for the arrival of a verb that will finally turn the whole mish-mash into something that will, with luck, make sense. Only then are they able to translate it. Unfortunately some sentences are so long, and so twisted up with bureaucratic jargon, that by the time the speaker reaches the convoluted end of the sentence, the translator has long since forgotten the beginning. Therefore translators from the German often speak in long eloquent silences as they wait for the sense of the current sentence to unravel in their minds. They tend to say "Ummm!" a lot, and they sometimes find themselves having to make inspired, artistically creative guesses about what might have just been said. And while they are muttering their translation of the current sentence, the speaker is already a long way into the next one, and the translator has probably missed most of it, being still heavily occupied with the work of translating the previous one. It is always a Red Queen's race and nobody ever catches up.

Further complications are caused by the fact that a native German speaker, faced with a new situation, will simply make up a new word on the spot to describe it. German lends itself to this – short words are easily combined into longer portmanteau words that just don't exist until the speaker proudly declaims them. Thus the language is constantly evolving and it is always full of confusing slang. Everyone remembers that not so very long ago the American President enthusiastically assured a cheering, but slightly bewildered, crowd of German supporters that he was a jam doughnut. Simultaneous translators from the German are haunted by the fear of committing similar solecisms. Wars have been started for less.

The nervous tension induced by these terrors causes a high turnover in German-speaking translators and the UN is always scouring the world for more of them.

People come and go in the auditorium without ceremony, delivering papers to their delegates and taking other papers away. The delegates pay no attention to the scurrying. They read their speeches in a calm, unhurried, very formal way. Everything seems minutely choreographed and well rehearsed. There are no surprises in the debating chamber.

The formal sessions are just a place to present foregone conclusions. All the real business of the Governing Council is discussed and settled at the evening parties where the drink flows freely, lubricating the wheels of power. We schmooze with the best of them and put forward proposals which are tentatively adopted. Everyone has another gin and looks at things from a differently blurred angle. The next day, more dull speeches in a politically appropriate language fill the time in the chamber, and the members ratify what little they remember of the previous evening's drunken diplomacy.

A motion is proposed and seconded and discussed and passed. The Soviets are jubilant – this topic seems to be important to them. We supported their motion and the next day a member of the Russian delegation turns up in our offices in the Palais Des Nations with a well chilled bottle of vodka and a large tin of caviare. It is only 9.00am, but that doesn't seem to matter. We drink very large shots of vodka, downed in one, and we chase them with Beluga Caviare; the very best caviare, we are informed. The rest of the day is a blur – but much more vodka features largely in it. The Russian delegation starts partying at 9.00am and stops partying at 9.00am the following day, which is when the next party starts. We join in enthusiastically.

Then we have a day off and so we go for a picnic – the hills around the French border are very pretty and nobody cares all that much if you stray too close to the dividing line between the two countries. The French officials are jovial and not at all averse to sharing a glass of wine with us. We sit on something that might be an alp when it grows up and we eat our picnic food and we drink far too much red wine. Flies join in enthusiastically and swim in our wine glasses. It just adds protein to the day.

The French speak very fast and I cannot make sense of the gabble. The Swiss speak more slowly, more precisely and they are much easier to understand. I remember that when I was first learning French at school I used to listen to the speeches of General de Gaulle on the radio. Unusually for a Frenchman, he spoke slowly and sonorously, enunciating every syllable very clearly. He spoke beautiful French and it was a joy to listen to him, even though most of his speeches consisted of him simply telling the English to get lost each time they applied to join the Common Market.

Geneva is an ancient city and the old town and the new town are quite distinct areas. We go out for dinner in the old town, where all the best restaurants are. We eat a fondue with sticky Swiss cheese and fresh French bread and then we have grilled sausages that taste of heaven and herbs. More wine!

One of the American delegation attaches himself to us. Perhaps he's a spy! He works for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an acronymic organisation that never uses one short word when ten long ones will do. His name is Lester Philip Needle – LP Needle. I pull his leg about this and he admits that his parents have an odd sense of humour (or humor, I suppose, since they are American). But he's got (gotten) used to it over the years.

Because the Soviets have obviously suborned us with vodka and caviare, Lester feels that it is his patriotic duty to emphasise the moral superiority of American ideas. He attempts to reverse their subtle socialist influence by plying us with Coca-Cola. He seems bewildered when we reject it in favour of more vodka. We discover that he doesn't understand the difference between raw sugar (Coke) and refined sugar (Vodka). The refinement comes from the application of yeast, you understand. The difference may be small, but it is hugely important. We ply him with caviare diluted with vodka, and we speak to him severely in subtle tones. He soon comes round to our way of thinking.

The lingua franca of the Governing Council is French. Faced with such total immersion, my early language lessons soon come rushing back to me and I find that it isn't long before I am chatting gaily. I meet an Italian delegate at a diplomatic party. We have a long conversation in French, the only language we have in common. Fuelled by wine, I tell him jokes in French. Fuelled by wine, he laughs in French, with an Italian accent.

Apart from the members of my own delegation, almost nobody seems to speak English. Even we don't bother with it much. By now I am fluent in French. After all, it is the language of diplomacy; and it has been for more than two hundred years. I begin to dream in French and the restaurants and cafés have no terrors for me any more. English fades to the back of my brain as the weeks pass by.

Eventually the business of the Governing Council concludes and it is time to go home. At the Geneva airport I buy a Swiss Army Knife as a souvenir. I decide that I will refer to it in conversation as my Swiss Swiss Army Knife. I wonder if anyone will notice.

The Swissair flight from Geneva to London takes off exactly on time. I drink a gin and tonic; they have no vodka on board the plane. The stewardesses chatter gaily in French. The pilot makes a French announcement that it is raining in London. We land at Heathrow, on time to the scheduled second and, clutching my passport, I queue up at the immigration desk.

"Had a good trip?" asks the immigration official as he examines my documentation.

"Mais oui," I reply. "Merci bien!"

He gives me an odd look. I have no idea why, I haven't said anything rude. I pass through into rainy London and it is only when the taxi driver fails to understand where I want to go that I finally realise I have to start talking in English again.

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