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This is the second in a series of excerpts from the recently published book, Around The World In Freighty Ways, which tells the story of the three years The Loadstar editor Gavin van Marle spent circumnavigating the world without flying, uncovering the previously unseen mechanics of globalisation. Gavin describes the epic journey around the world’s cargo hot- and more-tepid-spots as “like being given a backstage pass into the freight business”.
Here he is in Moscow, where then the telephone system left a lot to be desired – not what a busy journo needs.  Read on…

For decades telephones have been in existence, but many landlines around the world remain as unreliable as they were when the technology was first invented, and a telephone still needs to be developed that cuts out background noise, because that can sometimes really give the game away.

In Moscow I had an emergency commission from a well-paying magazine to write a profile of an east coast American company. This required a long telephone interview scheduled with the chief executive, chief financial officer and chief PR peanut huddled over a conference phone in Jacksonville, and me in my hotel room.

However, the phone in our room in the stunningly down-at-heal Hotel Molodezhnaya didn’t even connect to hotel reception, let alone the United States. I went down to reception; complained; was told it worked; went back; still couldn’t reach reception; went down again; went back up again; went down again; and on and on until the interview was minutes away.

14 Moscow (3)

The only other telephonic option was a pay phone in the lobby that charged exclusively in dollars. I bought a $5 card from the reception, dialled the number and watched aghast as my call was rated at $2 per minute. As the telephone began to ring a portly Eurasian sidled up to the huge bank of the fruit machines next to the telephone booth. At the very moment the highly paid PR woman – gatekeeper to the company’s top management – answered her phone, there was the distinctive explosion of one-armed bandit jingles inches away from me. Another dollar dropped off the counter.

“Hello, is that Cindy?” I asked, a tad frantically.

“It is.” Another 50 cents went.

“Hi, it’s Gavin van Marle here.” A sudden waterfall of jingles beside me and the man punched the air. The sound of kopecks falling into a tin tray was added to the din.

“Oh, hi. I’m just walking up to the boardroom to do this call with you…” another dollar went. “Can you hold on for a couple of minutes while I round up the guys?”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I replied. Suddenly there were shouts beside me as a small crowd gathered round the lucky man, on the verge of winning again. Lured by flashing lights and dinky noises, the sight of a winner was a hook to their greed. The cacophony built up as more, mostly down-at-heel central Asian businessmen, joined the throng. I began to shout.

“I’m just ringing to tell you that I can’t ring you.” There was a silence of a sorts as we both digested the utter preposterousness of that and the dollars continued to vanish at an alarming rate, before I said limply by way of explanation: “I’m in Moscow and having a few problems.”

I was fortunate in this case: a few years before this aborted interview the same company had been involved in an operation to run container trains on the Trans-Siberian Railway, an auspicious fact that was unrelated to the story that I was writing, but at least gave me a chance.

“OK, I understand, it’s a difficult place. Let’s try and rearrange this,” she said.

I had gotten away with it, but the situation was absurd – stuck in Russia doing a story on an American company for a British magazine. I had been commissioned because I knew the company – a port operator – and its business. The reality of where I was and where the interviewees were simply didn’t matter to the editor.

A few days later I sat in a rather nice booth in a vast internet complex deep in Okhotny Ryad Metro station underneath Red Square, and finally did the interview. I had peace around me, but the line was simply awful, and I agreed to provide a quote check because I could barely hear their answers.

The reality is that different parts of the world are developing at different speeds, and often areas we think of as catching up are actually leapfrogging the already-developed places. In Budapest, a Dutch expat married to a local woman told me how his wife receives a text message on her mobile every time her car door is opened. I had never heard of such a thing and neither had he, but the more I looked, the more I found that it is human nature to stand on the shoulders of others.

By the same token, the extensive telephone network installed throughout Russia and Eastern Europe during the Cold War is plainly incapable of dealing with the demands of modern internet usage. Which is just as well, for, if anything, the last few years have shown just how little people like talking to each other. Email, messenger and text services have allowed people to revert into their shells, and many have gratefully taken that chance. Look around any large office today, and the majority of serious communication within it is done by email.

The paradox is that people no longer need to go around the world to make contact with those on the other side of it. Email and Skype can do all that. Conversely, that I was in a position to work like this is the direct result of having been around the world to meet these people. I only got to understand what a port operator actually does by visiting a lot of them. It is about paying one’s dues.

At any given time, man is incapable of knowing where in history he sits, but we plainly do not yet live in a completely wired world. But we appear to be on the brink – in the early stages – of a new era, similar to the discovery of iron or steam power or the development of the motor car. Much of the technology we use today will doubtless seem quaintly crude to my grandchildren, perhaps even to my children – some of the things I used 15 years ago, like a pager, seem quaint to my current self.

We have already come a remarkably long way in a very short time, and in terms of international trade, electronic messaging, bills of lading (shipment receipts) and customs’ manifests have made the mass movement of containers across borders possible. If the container is the engine of globalisation, the internet is its lubrication oil.

 Around The World In Freighty Ways costs just £12.99. Copies can be obtained from directly from publisher Right River Press Ltd by calling 020 7403 2005, or via this Amazon link

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