MT Diary: Howard Davies checks out Shanghai Disneyland

Chinese kids deserve better than Disneyland, Howard Davies argues...

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 04 Feb 2014

I was looking forward to revisiting Shanghai for the first time since 2005. There's a vast new airport, with a super-fast maglev link to whisk you downtown. Those are what pass for excitements in my life these days.

However, all thoughts of the fun I had in store were pushed to the back of my mind when, on our final approach, I was informed that we would be landing into Shanghai Pudong in 20 minutes.

They are tricksy little creatures, English prepositions - oddly hard to get right, even for the native speaker. But the verb 'to land' is conveniently promiscuous in prepositional terms. Lots of combinations are possible.

You can land in (a country), land at (an airport), land on (a runway), land around (9 am), or even land up (in trouble). What you cannot grammatically do, I think, is land into anything, except in a cabin crew training manual.

Only hopeless pedants like me worry about these things today, though if and when the Scots fling their hooks and relaunch British Caledonian, I suppose BA will have to rebrand as English Airways. Then they would need to mind their 'ps' and 'qs' a little more carefully.

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On the maglev you can get into town in an infeasibly short time, but the location of my call was not maglev-compatible, so I took a car, which allowed me to view yet another new rapid-transit line being built to the Shanghai Disneyland.

I suppose one shouldn't be depressed at the thought of millions of Chinese children listening to endless loops of 'It's a small, small world', but I am. Rather than borrowing an ersatz American folk tradition created in a Hollywood animation studio in the 1940s, surely there's a Chinese version?

Fortunately, Disneyland isn't yet fully built, so I spent my few hours in Shanghai talking seriously about money, which is what that city has always been about, before hot-footing it back to the airport, chop chop, for an internal flight to Beijing, into which we did not land.

That's a construction the well-trained English teachers of China would not recognise.

The city was bathed in autumn sunshine and looked almost liveable. It was all abuzz with news of the Third Plenum, which attracted a little more attention round the globe than the Conservative Party Conference.

The leadership reaffirmed its determination to open up the economy and pursue market reforms, so the central bankers and regulators I met were busily engaged in working out just what the party bosses had in mind.

One thing that seems bound to happen is full convertibility for the renminbi, which will instantly become the world's second reserve currency, relegating poor old sterling even further. My Beijing hotel didn't even quote a rate for the pound, though it did for the Aussie and the Kiwi. Perhaps it was revenge for the prime minister's meeting with the Dalai Lama.

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Back in Europe, I paid a fleeting visit to Lisbon, to talk about the eurozone and banking union and eat grilled prawns washed down with Vinho Verde. Someone has to do it. Portugal is not in great shape. There has been one bailout already, and it seems likely that another will be needed before too long.

The Portuguese are trying to cut their Osbornian way to growth, but it isn't happening for them, and now prices are starting to fall, offering the gloomy prospect of deflation, which will make their debt even harder to repay.

Prices are pretty low already. The top seats at the Opera House (charming and high quality) are 50. You can buy a whole row in the stalls for the price of two chairs in a Covent Garden box. The old city looks rather rundown. One of the famous elevadors has given up the ghost, and there are boarded-up buildings aplenty.

In a way, that adds to the charm, and I would visit far more often if I could. There's a terrific brasserie-style restaurant called the Cervejaria Trindade, which has been there for ever, and a cubbyhole bar off the main square that serves cherry brandy for 1.50. Now that Prince Charles has reached retirement age, maybe he could be forgiven for having another one.

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Next stop was Bromsgrove, city of sin. Mine hosts were the Court Leet, founded in 1199, and a more hospitable bunch it would be hard to find. I have always thought of Bromsgrove as a series of roundabouts on the way to Shropshire, but it proved to be a thriving town with a proud tradition.

The Leet is a marvellous bit of heritage, with a bailiff, a marshal, a reeve and coveys of ealdormen and tythingmen, all dressed in red robes and assorted chains of office. I thought I had strayed into the Worcestershire branch of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, but no, it was all for real, although the website proudly explains that today the Court performs no functions whatsoever.

I'm rather in favour of institutions with no functions. There are too many supposedly useful outfits, so one wonders about the future of Bagehot's distinction between the useful and dignified parts of the constitution. Even the House of Lords claims to be useful these days. In Iolanthe we learn that 'The House of Lords, throughout the war, did nothing in particular, and did it very well'.

The Bromsgrove Court Leet fits that description to a 't'. There should be more like it, perhaps in China. The Chinese would benefit from a pointless ceremonial that didn't involve Chairman Mao (not big in Bromsgrove, I'm told). It beats Disneyland any day.

Howard Davies is chairman of the Airports Commission.

Follow him on Twitter: @howardjdavies

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