Travel: Simon Calder

Baffled locals peered in to see the train's occupants dining on minced kangaroo...
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The Independent Culture
DO YOURSELF a favour: book a stay in London for next November (or, if you already live in the capital, make no plans to venture elsewhere). Ideally, secure a position in the travel industry, or make yourself out to be a member of the travel-writing fraternity (not a Herculean task). Then sit back and enjoy the spectacle that is London during World Travel Market week.

The annual travel trade exhibition at Earl's Court was only a few hours old when I overheard half of a mobile phone conversation that spat with frustration: "But I told you to meet me at Dubai. What are you doing in Africa?"

The sight of nearly 200 nations, and thousands of companies, trying to score points off each other is a rivetting spectacle. The action off the pitch is entertaining too: London's restaurateurs rub their oven gloves in anticipation of all those expense accounts, while performers who might otherwise be resting can be sure of employment. Like the troupe of grass- skirted dancers sighted on Tuesday evening at London Bridge station, gamely emulating routines last seen employed by Pan's People. From the ribald comments that rent the chilly concourse, it was clear that homebound commuters were enjoying the performance rather more than the people for whom it was intended.

The UK end of the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express put in a surprise appearance at London Bridge station, one of the capital's grimmer termini. In a stunt typical of World Travel Market week, the venerable train was hauled out of the sidings and loaded with journalists and trade buyers.

The purpose was to publicise a new luxury train. This will run along Australia's beautiful east coast, parallelling the Great Barrier Reef and cutting across the Tropic of Capricorn on its way south from Cairns. So perhaps it was perverse to plug the service with a romp through south- east London. As a local resident, I can confirm the area is unmatched as a glimpse of post-apocalyptic devastation (and that's just my house).

Bemused guests found themselves on a gloomy trail through the inner-city shabbiness of Peckham and Lewisham. On scruffy platforms, baffled locals peered in at VIPs dining on minced kangaroo. The train doors were locked to prevent passengers like me, accustomed to grimy Connex SouthEastern trains, from upgrading.

According to one passenger, "a well-aimed brick would have taken out some of the top names in travel", but thankfully there was no murder on the noble express. After a sweep around the arc of anarchy, the train deposited its cargo at London Bridge, where a consignment of Foster's lager was on hand to numb the senses against the cold and the choreography. An hour later, the train rumbled back to Victoria. Whatever next: a trek around the Elephant and Castle on real elephants?

THE LAUNCH of "London: Millennium City" at the Banqueting House in Whitehall was rather more salubrious. But Trevor Phillips, who chairs the London Arts Board and writes for The Independent, aimed a pre-emptive strike at other world-class cities: "The position of the world's leading city for the millennium is already taken, so sod off."

Then, addressing New York's Mayor Giuliani, he said: "We don't celebrate a murder-free week as an epoch-making event." Watch out for reprisals.

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