There’s a Taylor Swift Education Centre in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. Sadly, when I popped in there recently, Taylor was not in residence with a ruler and a piece of chalk, being otherwise engaged with her latest beau. She would be better off with a mature gent able to talk interestingly over dinner about risk management and the new bank capital regime, but she has not come to that realisation yet.
In the absence of Taylor we had to make do with a display of memorabilia, including Elvis Presley’s army uniform in a glass case. I confess I am a bit hazy about the precise definition of country music, but it appears Elvis qualifies on the basis of being a ‘cross-genre personality’. However, he had left the building, so we were entertained at some length by a genial songwriter who has written number ones for a wide range of singers and bands I haven’t heard of, though the name ZZ Top rang the faintest of bells. And we ate, predictably, surf and turf, in this case lobster and rib-eye, washed down with a few pints of merlot. Next morning’s 6am call came about 24 hours too soon.
For a boy who normally shuttles between New York, Paris and London, Nashville is, well, different. And my next stop, Lansing, Michigan is even differenter. Lansing is the state capital, chosen a hundred years ago because it wasn’t Detroit, then seen by the rest of the state as an imperial monster. For almost a hundred years Lansing prospered on the back of Oldsmobile cars, but the last one rolled off the line in 2004, and the factory closed, leaving a gaping economic hole behind. The road in from the tiny airport offers a long display of derelict gas stations, adult shops and empty parking lots.
I always liked the name Oldsmobile, redolent of more innocent days, before Al Gore invented climate change, when American cars grew wings. I suppose I had never asked myself where the name came from. Had I done so, I would have discovered that a Mr Olds had added a descriptive suffix to his name. The Olds family emigrated from Sherborne in Dorset, two stations away from the halt near Chateau Davies, and there is still a car dealer of that name. Maybe Dorset and Michigan should be twinned.
But Lansing does have one thing in its favour: you can get to Chicago in under an hour. I have a soft spot for the windy city on the lake. It was unseasonably cold, but the sky was clear and blue, and the buildings high. There is something uplifting about the brash display of self-confidence and wealth, both old and new. And then there is the Art Institute, second only in size to the Metropolitan in New York, and even more highly rated by some. Tripadvisor has it as the world’s best museum, and millions of internet trolls surely can’t be wrong.
Chicago is in fact twinned with Birmingham, which doesn’t quite… I should probably say nothing more: one of my best friends is the Aston Villa supporter. It is also twinned with Athens, which shows that someone in the Mayor’s office has a sense of humour, and with Shanghai, which makes a lot more sense. Pudong has a Chicago feel to it. I don’t know how many delegations of municipal engineers jet hither and yon, but getting between Chicago and China is not a piece of moon cake. In fact I chose to stop off in London on the Beijing-Chicago route.
In Beijing they are trying to get used to the terrifying notion that their economy might grow by no more than 7% for the next year or two. After a double-digit decade it is a bit of a comedown, and there is a risk that some over-extended property investors may find themselves short of a few RMB if the market turns. Getting credit is not a problem. The shadow banking system is powering ahead. Alibaba launched a money market fund about three years ago. It now has 185 million investors, with $93bn of funds under management at the end of last year. The People’s Bank has held down interest rates on deposits held in the traditional banks, which has created a massive incentive for the growth of alternative investments. But no one has a very clear idea of where all this money is going. So the cautious regulatory folk I meet are anxious.
We have, of course, seen Chinese bubbles before, and I wouldn’t personally bet against the authorities coping with this one. They have managed to put the lid on racy growth in risky business before. They will, nonetheless, need all their managerial skill this time, especially when the economy itself is slowing. A 10% growth rate can conceal a multitude of sins.
This eccentric itinerary involved about 40 hours on planes, mostly BA, in the space of eight days. So it was with relief that I eased myself into a quiet South West train on Saturday morning for a couple of hours dredging through emails before a weekend chopping wood. Someone infiltrated my four-seater at Basingstoke, and I looked up to see another BA uniform opposite me. I jumped. My instant reaction was of horror – the last thing I wanted was someone else asking me to clear my floor area before landing in Crewkerne – but before you could say ‘Executive Club Gold Card’ I was deep in conversation with a friendly first officer, who seemed genuinely interested in my anecdotal feedback on the quality of the garlic bread, and the strange warm nut selection they recently supplied with the taxiway drink. But at least they were served in a bowl not a bag, so I didn’t have to abort the take-off, gangnam-style.
Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardjdavies