Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Accidental Londoner takes the stage at The UN, Geneva

I was pleasantly surprised to have made it through security quicker than I had at Heathrow earlier that day. I had been warned of long queues and rigorous checks, as well as the considerable paperwork and pre-arrival forms I'd had to complete and bring with me. Of course they'd wanted to see my passport too.  In the sticky heat, with my attempting-to-look-older-than-I-am shift dress sticking to me, my bags and myself were scanned and scrutinised.  But after a mere fifteen minutes there I was swiping a recently-printed pass featuring a squashed, serious face that sort of looked like me onto a gate that slid open, admitting me to the UN's Palais de Nations. 

If you are an aspiring rockstar your dream is to play Wembley or Madison Square Gardens. You imagine the day your name appears in lights above the door, and people queue round the block clutching photos of you, screaming your name. Being hustled in through the stage door you are on your way. And when you step out onto the main stage, you have arrived.  Until that moment however you are forced to tour dive-bars anywhere that will give you a microphone and a fifteen minute slot, slogging away at your craft, feeling like the road to the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury or the O2 Arena is long and winding. And then you get a break. Someone comes down with laryngitis and scratches, and you find yourself on a stage far more high profile than you deserve. But you seize the opportunity and agree to fill their spot. You rehearse frantically, consider what you will wear to ensure no one exposes you for the talentless, inexperienced fraud that you are, rehearse some more, freak out a little bit. And then the day dawns. You show up, you find your spot, and you rock the hell out of that stage.

The likelihood of me ever headlining Wembley is pretty small.  I can just about hold a tune, but as my party trick tends to be reminding people that yes, we have actually met several times before, it's safe to say my stage presence would likely be forgettable at best.  Despite past attempts to learn I cannot play the guitar - even in that lead-singer-who-just-needs-something-to-do-with-their-hands kind of way - and my piano teacher once politely suggested to my parents that they might like to do something more worthwhile with their hard-earned cash rather than continue paying for my music lessons.  Something like spend it on wine and loose living, I imagine.

Wisely therefore, I decided I wouldn't pursue a career in musical performance. Instead I got a job in international development; an industry with far less glamour but possibly comparable levels of alcohol consumption. Rather than attempting to dominate the charts and shift multi-platinum selling albums, us international development professionals have a far more humble and naive aim - in one way or another to change the world for the better. Frankly, maybe rock stardom would be a more attainable target. And for many of us, the path to the top of our industry leads, not to Wembley, but to the UN.  And here I was, at the UN's Geneva HQ, about to play one of the side stages as a replacement for a seasoned pro who couldn't make it. I was both totally excited and completely terrified.

With my new credentials swinging from a chain around my neck I wandered out into the enormous complex. The Palais is not just one palace, but a series of buildings, neatly arranged carparks and perfectly tended gardens.  Tour groups of Japanese tourists in their t-shirts and shorts mingle incongrously with NGO staff and aid workers, snapping photos of someone who was probably the person who makes the tea on the fourth floor, but whose lanyard and photo-badge proclaim them to be UNOG staff.  Originally the main buildings of the Palais (yes, it's in Switzerland, I'm sticking with the French) were designed back in the 1920s, but I was directed - with a slight sniff by the Swiss receptionist - to the 'new building'.

The last time this building had actually been new was 40 years ago, when it was added to the complex to host conferences and events. All sculpted concrete and vast floor-to-ceiling windows, the conference building is a maze of halls and corridors. Exhibition spaces on refugees and nuclear proliferation fill open spaces, visitors gaze around at the miles of post-boxes and no-entry doors.  There is even a newsagent, a bookshop and a travel agent, for the convenience of the jet-setting diplomats who wander around inside this place.  And the cafe. The cafe overlooks, well, this...
Yup: that's a beautifully sunny Lake Geneva, complete with yachts

Descending into the basement, where the event I was due to attend was being held, smart-suited people glided past me on the escalator heading upwards, arms full of paper and UN credentials prominently displayed.  People perused stalls, chatted in clusters and drank free coffee out of paper cups, a million miles from the humanitarian crises they were here to discuss.  I did what all nervous first-time performers did in such situations, and, in a corner away from the frantic networking, rehearsed my words, reminding myself of why I was there and what I wanted to say.  

And then it was showtime. In a gaggle of other speakers I was led towards a wide, window-less room. Window-less that is if you didn't count the six darkened panels behind which a bank of simultaneous translators usually sat; fortunately they were not waiting to retransmit our words today, peering down from on high at this panel of speakers. The room filled up with people clutching iPads, Blackberries, notebooks and event packs, each new person taking a seat behind a microphone, facing those of us up on the stage, readying ourselves to perform.  Here was our audience, hoping we would be worth watching.  

Like every truly great gig, our event started late. The audience was silenced by a welcome, an introduction, and then I was up. The red light on the microphone in front of me lit up. I stared at my heavily amended notes, then looked up at the rows of faces looking right at me. Deep breath. "Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here this evening..."  


  1. Well done! It is so exciting to get a chance like this.

    And what a wonderful view...... wow.........

    1. Thanks, Jenny. It really was exciting! And the view...well, there are worse views from an office window, eh? Beautiful blue lake, white yachts, birds overhead, mountains...

  2. Congratulations! I am sure that it is the first of many successful events.

    1. Thanks, Muriel. I am certainly hoping so!

  3. Playing at the U.N. eh? Brilliant. I'm looking forward to the next episode where you are caught up in a spy drama.

    1. Cheers, Rashbre! Ha, can you a spy drama? I should pitch the idea to Channel 4.


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