Writing is hard: Part 14,694

This was written in my blood.

Turns out that writing is actually pretty fucking difficult. This is a blog about how I revised the hardback of How To Be A Liberal for the softback edition, which sounds like some next-level Inside Baseball introspection and indeed is. But there’s hopefully a few useful things about it. Firstly, it says something about writing, in particular long-form writing. Secondly, it says something about politics, and in particular how lefty pinko maybe-it’s-better-if-don’t-leave-people-to-starve-in-the-streets liberals define themselves. And finally, it might potentially cheer you up a bit about the state of the world. No promises on the last part though. I caveated the shit out of it.

First of all though I just need to state that revising a book is an absolute bastard. I’ve done it once before, for Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now, and that was awful too. Now I’ve done it again and it was worse. Revision is both laborious and invisible – the most despicable of all combinations. 

The chief lesson I took from it this time is the importance of signposting – constantly letting the reader know where they are in the narrative and the argument. I’ve written before about how vital this is in journalistic writing. Your job is to make it as easy and entertaining as possible for the reader to understand complicated things. That involves making it very clear at all times exactly where you’re going.

It becomes particularly important when your narrative stretches nearly half a millennium, from Rene Descartes to Donald Trump. You need to keep it tight and explicit, constantly showing how the thing you’re dealing with now relates to what you were talking about back then.

But when I was writing the latter half of the hardback I got a bit distracted by another piece of writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’. This is the idea that you don’t patronise your audience by stating things outright, but let them get there their own way by virtue of the content itself. You don’t want an X-Men film where a mutant says ‘we’re hated and feared just like the white majority has treated the African-American community’,. You don’t want an Aliens movie where a character turns to the camera and says: ‘This whole situation speaks to my fear of penetration and childbirth.’ It’s too on-the-nose. You want to let the metaphor speak for itself.

And that’s good advice. You should totally follow that if you are writing a novel. But I wasn’t. I was writing journalistic nonfiction covering 500 years of philosophy, economics and politics. So it really was much better to be specific. This was by far the most common change I made in the new edition – adding additional explicit references to previous sections, for instance on the way that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dangerous idea of the general will had inserted itself into left-wing identity politics, or Friedrich Hayek’s nonsense babble about market-regulation was there in the credit rating agencies during the financial crash. Honestly, these changes added up to a few hundred words throughout the book, but they have improved it immeasurably.

That brings me to the biggest change in the book and the one that I feel… I dunno if guilty is the word, but tentative. It’s about terminology. It came about because someone online – I think it was on Twitter, or an Amazon review or something – said they wished I’d put in something on neoliberalism so they could counter the accusations that get thrown around about how liberalism is right-wing. 

Fuck my life, I thought. A third of the fucking book is about that and they don’t even realise. But then I realised that it was my fault. I hadn’t explained the terms sufficiently. Neoliberalism is, to all intents and purposes, identical to laissez-faire liberalism, or libertarianism, or what people hopelessly and inaccurately call ‘classical liberalism’. It’s the view that the state has a very limited right to interfere in people’s economic affairs and that the market works best when left alone.

But the thing is: I didn’t actually say that. I explained the ideas, but I didn’t specify the various terms that are used for them. I just used ‘laissez-faire’, because it best encapsulates the philosophy and works in both a historical and modern context. So in the paperback I chucked in a section outlining all these terms, why they all shared the same basic DNA, and then stuck with laissez-faire throughout. It was one of those bits of background reasoning that needed to be brought to the foreground and clearly explained.

The same applied to the other school of liberal thought, which you can call social democracy or social liberalism – basically the idea of a mixed economy where the state can and does interfere in the market and people’s economic affairs. 

But here’s where I made kind of a big call. In the hardback I used egalitarian liberalism as the umbrella term for this. But in the paperback I changed it to radical liberalism. 

I feel a bit guilty about that, because a lot of people wrote to me after the hardback and said how happy they were to realise that there’s a name for what they believe. 

I picked egalitarian liberalism because it’s an accurate descriptor. Like John Stuart Mill said, the system would tend towards equality. But it has some downsides. They sound superficial. Shit, maybe they are. But denying superficiality in politics is like denying the rain during a picnic: it won’t make you dry.

Egalitarian liberalism is a bit of a mouthful and it sounds kind of academic and comfortable. One of the things that gets to me is how there is no easy go-to immediately-recognisable phrase for this school of thought, despite the fact it has the same intellectual heritage as laissez-faire. The closest are ‘social democracy’ and ‘mixed economy’, neither of which encapsulate the scale of it or even mention liberalism. 

I constantly read highly intelligent writers talk about liberalism and social democracy as if they are distinct things. And that perpetuates the sense that there is something fundamentally right-wing about liberalism, and in particular about the idea of the individual as the highest concept in political thought.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. It was liberalism which gave us a welfare state, the NHS, human rights and free movement. It has been the most effective system in human history for protecting the vulnerable and improving the lot of all. We deserve to be able to articulate this school of liberalism quickly and proudly. And for that, I decided radical liberalism is a better term.

It is less of a mouthful, less academic, and it encapsulates the central ideas: that this is a form of liberalism which shakes things up, which is not content with the world as it is, that demands change – in our economic lives, but also in our social and political lives, particularly through the fight for marginalised people. 

It feels a bit cheeky to give people one word for something in one edition of the book and swap it out for another. But really I’ve just switched the umbrella term. And I’m pleased with where it settled. Radical liberalism sounds a bit aggressive, which is fitting because that is what it demands of liberalism: a kind of thrusting, world-changing demand for freedom, one which isn’t content with the world as it is, but seeks to improve it. So yeah, I did that. Sorry, but also not sorry, as I believe the kids say.

The final change was the most satisfying. It was to do with narrative. The hardback ended with the nationalist attack on immigrants and then a call to arms to challenge it. But between then and now, something happened. Things improved. Trump was thrown out of office and replaced by Joe Biden. 

Now there’s all sorts of reasons to be fearful. One of the two main political parties in the US has seemingly turned its back on democracy altogether. But Biden winning showed that nationalists can be beaten. His domestic policy decisively turned its back on laissez-faire and committed to Keynesian economics. 

Of course, the last few weeks have looked less rosy. In terms of foreign policy, Biden seems intent on following an America First programme and his comments on Afghanistan have been disgraceful. 

But then, liberalism does not search for perfect politicians. It does not engage in the tub-thumping hero worship which populism embraces. It does not invert objective reality so that it can maintain its faith in the leader. It does not expect perfection, but instead admits nuance, and the endless combinations of failure and success which constitute political careers and individual lives. Biden can be pivotal to domestic policy and the push-back against nationalism while simultaneously being wrong-headed in foreign policy.

We have to be able to keep two thoughts in our heads at the same time. And right now that feels like a radical act. In an age of purity and bovine-stupid political thought, in which all is white or black and nothing in between, it takes commitment to recognise the fundamental complexity of the world. And, as much as that, the fundamental complexity of people.

So instead of ending with the protests against Trump, the book now ends with Biden’s victory, the insurrection against the US Congress, and its defeat. Few events could have better encapsulated the book’s 500-year narrative. Nationalism stood exposed for what it really was: simplistic, brutal, utterly uninterested in the ‘will of the people’ when it turned against it. But most of all: it was revealed as beatable. There is no unstoppable wave, dragging us back to authoritarianism and ignorance. They can be stopped. And they can be turned back on their arse.

In short: history gave the book a happy ending. Maybe not a Return of the Jedi everything-has-been-sorted happy ending. But a New Hope happy ending: a solid victory which can work as a springboard for ultimate success. Proof of concept. And thank fuck alive for that. 

You can buy the Waterstones Exclusive Edition of How To Be A Liberal here, with an additional mini-chapter on liberalism in the age of covid.

Nine tips for political writing

I’ve been editing other people’s political writing almost all my journalistic career. I hate it. It gives me almost no pleasure at all. Some editors are genuinely good people. They take pride in sending other people’s work into the world in the best possible state. They have a saintly, selfless quality which I will never be able to emotionally understand.

But you learn a lot as a writer from being an editor. It was a privilege, and a stroke of luck, to have done so much of it, even though I despised every single fucking moment of it. The relentless day-in-day-out drudgery of it taught me the basic elements of good writing. At any stage of that process I would have walked away and never done it again if I could. So it just goes to show that you absolutely do not know what’s best for you.

A few months ago I stopped editing and started writing full time, so this seemed a good moment to put something out there about the kinds of things editors look for. I’ve no idea whether this is remotely useful to anyone, or indeed if other editors would agree with it, but for what it’s worth: these are the kind of things I appreciated. Bear in mind these relate mostly to political blogging and comment writing, but you could probably apply them to most journalistic writing.

First, the obvious: Make it an interesting idea. If you are a budding political writer, do not pitch a piece on how Starmer is attacking Johnson on corruption, or how Brexit suggests Britain is moving towards culture war politics. Both these points are true, but everyone else has already said them. Publications will have tried-and-tested writers on hand who will make these arguments and they will do it better than you. Make your email to the commissioning editor immediately attention-grabbing – something other people are not saying or have not yet realised. 

A good way of doing that is to find an area you find interesting and properly understand it, then pitch a piece which makes what’s happening there pertinent to a broader audience. Huge policy areas currently get comparatively little attention – criminal justice, drugs, transport, energy, the list is endless. We need more attention on them, and less on the daily Westminster goings-on.

Second: Do the research. It takes time, patience and humility to really understand a subject area. Have those qualities. Reading the newspapers is not enough. Do proper research. Read reports by think tanks and industry bodies. And read all of them – not just the executive summaries. Watch select committee hearings online. The old ones are on the parliamentary website and are an invaluable resource. Notice the witnesses who really know their subject. Follow them on Twitter. Read the reports they’ve contributed to. 

Read papers by the House of Commons Library. Check out the sources and read those papers too. Phone up people who are experts in the field and talk to them, but do not do this until you have done the background reading. They’re not a shortcut for you to understand things. They’re there to help you fully understand them once you have a broad grasp of the subject. Treat them like saints, because they are.

When you’ve written the piece, go through each sentence imagining that your worst enemy in the world is sitting there trying to fuck you up. Imagine you’re an interviewee on one of Andrew Neil’s old BBC shows and he wants to make a human ruin of you. What would your answer be when he raises a problem with each sentence? Which report would you cite? Which expert that you trust vouched for the information? This can be a boring process, but it’s better to go through it now, in private, than later, in public.

Third, submit the piece on time, as described, and to the right word count. Do not make the editor wait for it. You will stress them out and they will be less likely to hire you again. You are being commissioned to deliver a service. Deliver the service as advertised. 

Fourth, provide an immediately arresting introduction. Too many pieces begin with the most boring pieces of information available, something like: ‘The commission on financial irregularities recently brought out a report, having interviewed several stakeholders, about fluctuations in the…..’ Fuck my life. No-one cares what else you have to say. 

Begin instead with the most exciting element of the story – the most dramatic eventuality, the moment of highest conflict, the fact which is most shocking to the reader, the most arresting image. And then work back from there to the issue you want to talk about – the parliamentary debate, or local council meeting, or think tank report. Give them the stakes first, so they want to find out more.

Fifth, stage-post your narrative. Stage-post like your fucking life depends on it. So many pieces descend into a swamp of impenetrable arguments and events. This is a betrayal of the valuable time you are being given by the reader.

They should know exactly where they are in the argument for every single second that they are reading it. They should know why what they’re reading is important, the point you are making, and why this current sentence contributes to it. Hold their hand. Guide them through. Look at each sentence and ask yourself why it’s pertinent. If you can’t answer that question, delete it.

Your readers are busy. Your job is to make the process of accumulating knowledge about the world easy. They should not struggle to understand you. You are not a poet, writing for people to appreciate your words through introspection in the moonlight. You are a hack, writing for busy people on a bus who are late for work. Your job is to deliver this information into their brain effortlessly. 

That goes for the wording too. In fact, let’s make that the sixth point. Do not use jargon, except insofar as you want to equip the reader to understand the jargon that is being used in general debate. If there is a phrase, like ‘quantitative easing’ say, which you cannot describe in simple words then you do not understand it. Go back and make sure you do. 

This will not be fun. You will get very little recognition for it. Understanding is like an iceberg. The reader will only see the very tip of all the work you do. But it’s only by building that immense slab underneath the water that the reader gets the bit above the surface.

Seventh, check out your publication’s style guide. Do they use straight quotes or curly? Do they capitalise job titles? Follow it. This isn’t a deal breaker. Publications will fix what you do. But in an ideal world they won’t have to do a goddamned thing to your copy. And then they will ask you for more.

Eighth, do not argue with the person editing your copy. I have lost track of how many people want to have a strop about an edit, or who answer with such curt seething replies that they’re clearly aggrieved someone has fondled their beautiful words. Well, that’s the job. You are not Hemingway. Your copy will and often must be fucked with. 

Place yourself in the editor’s shoes. They are taking time out of their working day to improve your work. It is a gracious and thoughtful act. Do not throw that back in their face. There is absolutely nothing you can do which will make them less likely to commission you again. It’s genuinely better to hand in shoddy work than complain when someone fixes it. 

In fact, let’s expand that to the ninth and final point, one which also functions as a general moral principle in life: Don’t be a dick. Don’t be an egomaniac. Don’t be pompous or self-important. Don’t make other people’s lives harder. Be a pleasant person to work with. Be nice and thoughtful. When you raise a problem, also raise a solution. Editors want to get through the day as easily and pleasantly as possible. They reward those who help them do that. 

Right, that’s it from me. You may have noticed typos in this piece, or arguments which could have been made more effectively or concisely. That’s because it didn’t have an editor. Good editors are heroes in a world of civilians. Treat them well. 

The great big How To Be A Liberal film marathon: Part One

Here it is, finally, after all this time. The thing absolutely no-one – literally not a single soul – asked for: The great big How To Be A Liberal film marathon. I’ve included one or two films per chapter, for you to watch after you read it, or maybe all at once at the end of the book, or anytime you fancy really. Fuck, I can’t control you. YOU MUST BE YOUR OWN PERSON. EXPRESS YOUR AUTONOMY. HAVE YOU LEARNT NOTHING FROM THE BOOK?

This originally popped into existence because the missus and I were going to watch a film which touched on one of the elements of the book, and then decided – fuck it, we’ve got nothing on – what if we actually put together a series of films which spoke to the events and themes of each chapter? That led to her repeatedly falling asleep while I nerded out hard over some extremely obscure films about 17th Century politics.

Believe me – there’s some heavy lifting behind what’s on here. We’ve sat through some proper shite (Cromwell, The Patriot and Marie Antoinette are particularly noteworthy examples which you must never watch) but kept it well away from the list. Every film here has something powerful to recommend it, and some of them are truly extraordinary. Only one of them is objectively bad – Cartesius – but even that is still oddly impressive in its sense of commitment. Although after a couple hours of it, you may admittedly disagree. 

The missus’ review is included after mine, for reasons of full disclosure. As you can imagine, she is in the process of re-assessing some of her life choices. Parts Two and Three will be up soon.



Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, 1998, available for free on Amazon Prime

It’s curious – but deeply reassuring – how many children’s films are imbued with liberal messages. More will figure later on in this list, but Antz is arguably the most radical of all of them. Its central messages are astonishingly on-point – question all orders, think for yourself, be an individual, choose your own life. The final lines of the film are – and I know this is ridiculous, but it’s true – a near perfect summary of Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill’s autonomy principle. It’s not on this list just because it’s lovely or satisfyingly fable-like way to begin, although it’s both of those things. It’s here because it’s hard to think of another film – for any audience, in any genre – which does a better job of introducing basic liberal ideas. The fact that it then tries to inspire them in children and encourage them to question authority is just a very big plus. Those ideas are explored not just in the plot or the script, but in the architecture of the story. The portrayal of a dumping ground, complete with a lushly depicted rotting fish, as an insect utopia is really quite beautiful – and a reminder that different people have different visions of the good life.

Missus review: Quite boring. Sex jokes for adults in a cartoon? The 90s were so naff.

Chapter One


Roberto Rossellini, 1974, available on Criterion Channel (VPN required)

Yes that’s right, we start as we mean to go with a two-and-a-half hour 1970s Italian made-for-TV film about Rene Descartes. To make things even more exciting it’s almost impossible to find. The only place I could get it online is on the Criterion Channel, which, unfortunately, does not allow subscriptions from the UK. You can get around this with a VPN –  Hotspot has a free version which’ll do the trick. Once that’s accomplished you have the tribulations of the film itself, which has no narrative structure to speak of, but instead consists of painful set-ups for philosophising between Descartes and a host of figures, always conducted in the same manner and proceeding in the same way. There are no struggles for our hero to overcome or characters to populate his story. So yes – this one is for the hardcore only, but all is not lost. The film is brilliantly researched and thorough, giving you a very efficient overview of the entirety of Cartesian philosophy. Ugo Cardea is oddly fitting as Descartes – rarely smiling and wafting around full of his own self-importance, much as you might imagine the man himself. Charles Borromel makes a perfect Marin Mersenne, with a smile constantly playing on his lips. The rest of the acting is several steps down from that which you get from side characters in a video game or a 70s porno. This is best watched by turning it into a drinking game where you have to do a shot every time someone wakes up Descartes in bed and tells him it’s late. There is also a tremendously weird scene involving an automaton. Is it easy? No. Is it fun? No. Is it good? Honestly, no. But it is genuinely informative and there’s a real charm to watching a film which is so committed to laying out the history of ideas on screen.

Missus review: I fell asleep several times due to the monotonous tones and every time I woke up it was the same two men talking about mathematics. 

The Matrix

The Wachowskis, 1999, available to rent online through streaming services

Before the Matrix, philosophy professors had to explain the notion of the Cartesian demon. After the Matrix, that was no longer necessary. Now they could just say: Prove you’re not in the Matrix. In fact the whole film acts as some kind of fever dream playing out in Descartes’ head on the night of the three dreams. “You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?” Neo asks, in one of his first lines. If Descartes had philosophised through the medium of slow-mo gun fights and kung-fu, this might well have been the kind of thing he’d come up with. The film has barely dated at all, and that is not just about its special effects. It’s that it perfectly melds philosophy and action in a way which is seemingly effortless and yet utterly original. Of course, it’s been adopted by dimwit conspiracy theory red-pill lunatics online, but watching it gives you an idea of just how universal questions about certainty and objectivity are in Western thought. And that helps dramatise why Descartes’ discovery of the individual was so striking: the only certainly true thing in a world you can’t rely on.  

Missus review: I remember the film being cleverer than it was but maybe I was dumber in the 90s.

Chapter Two

A Field in England

Ben Wheatley, 2013, available to rent online through streaming services

Ok, so let’s be clear. This film is messed up. It is messed up in ways you will have never thought possible, including one scene that disorientated me so badly I thought for a moment I might throw up. There’s no point going into it expecting it to make sense, or indeed that any of the events which unfold during it will be explained. You just have to sort of let it wash over you. It’s an uncompromising piece of film-making with a singular vision. One of the things I love about it – there are too many to list individually – is that at some point a group of people decided to make a black and white hallucinogenic horror film set in the English Civil War. What kind of audience is there for that? None. But they did it anyway, and fuck may God bless them for that. There are certain key moments in this, including specifically the shot of a man emerging from a tent – you’ll know it when you see it – that might just haunt you forever. They do me. I kept finding myself undone by memories of them days after watching it. It is not included here for the political points it makes, if indeed they can be discerned. It’s more that its whole approach – the affront to sense – seems to channel what the civil war period represents, of age-old certainties undermined, of suddenly anything being possible, of violent and shocking change. It doesn’t so much address the civil war as try to encapsulate the psychological impact of living through it.

Missus review: I want to forget I ever watched this film please. 

Fanny Lye Deliver’d

Thomas Clay, 2020, available to rent online through streaming services

That same sense of strangeness and uncomfortable change is present in Fanny Lye Deliver’d, which makes a good double-bill with A Field in England, although by Christ you’ll be fucked by the end of it. The two even have almost identical film posters. Here the sense of weirdness and fluctuation is described as “an England now adream”. The sense of historical accuracy here – especially in the housing, clothing and instruments for the soundtrack – is second to none. What starts as a seemingly quite inspiring story suddenly takes a serious turn for the worse and things become really quite monstrous and uncomfortable. The main focus here is on sexual relationships, and in particular the treatment of women, during the civil war period, but it’s noticeable how many aspects it shares with A Field in England, including the ingestion of psychedelics in a crucial scene. Mushrooms in both films induce the personal experience of a grander social revolution taking place around the characters. Taken together, these two films give an indication of just what an unsettling impact the English Civil War still has on the English psyche and how it is capable of inspiring filmmakers’ best work.

Missus review: I want to watch the civil war Thelma and Louise flick that happened in the last five mins ie. a completely different film.

Chapter Three – Part One: Glorious Revolution

The Man Who Laughs

Paul Leni, 1928, available to rent online through streaming services

Not an easy sell this. A silent black and white film, made nearly a century ago, by a German expressionist. But if you give it a shot you will find wonders which are simply not possible in talkies, not the least of which is the creation of a deeply disturbing – almost suffocating – hypnotic dream-space. Set during the rule of King James II and carrying on into that of Queen Anne, The Man Who Laughs tracks the life of a child whose face has been disfigured into a permanent grin. As it happens, he was the inspiration for the Batman villain the Joker – a fact which will be obvious the moment you lay eyes on him. The film is an examination of false smiles, of the relationship between seriousness and laughter, and nearly every central moment in it emerges from that dynamic. Visually, it is a masterpiece. In terms of its place in this list, the fact it occurs during Glorious Revolution years is ultimately quite superficial. It’s included because, at its heart, it is a liberal story. It is about a man discarded as a freak by society, to be laughed at and mocked, who then establishes his own life. Conrad Veidt, in a masterclass of acting, guides us through every feeling he experiences through his eyes while his mouth is fixed in its grim permanent smile, culminating in an extraordinary and deeply moving set piece in the House of Lords. Notice the way that he is always silent, but you can hear the mocking laughter of the crowds gathered around him, or the cruel irony that when someone is finally willing to accept his deformity, it is as a sexual kink which serves to actually undermine his desire for acceptance. A truly beautiful and unforgettable piece of film-making.

Missus review: Fell asleep.

Chapter Three – Part Two: The American Revolution


Thomas Kail, 2020, available for free on Disney Plus

Hamilton is less a musical than a cultural phenomenon, and a tremendously valuable and healthy one at that. This isn’t simply because of its racially-blind casting, but also artistically, for the melding of hip hop and musicals – a mix that proves so potent you presume it’ll become its own genre. This film of the New York show avoids the usual stale and distant effect of theatrical performances on screen, due to a dynamic camera and elegant, effective editing. It provides a useful overview of the American war of Independence and the struggles which came afterwards to assert the character and structure of the new nation. But more than that, it carries within it a liberal argument about the figure of the immigrant, encapsulated in the moment in which Hamilton and Lafayette stand together and exclaim: “Immigrants. We get the job done.” Beautiful, evocative and vigorously alive: there’s no better film on this period of history.

Missus review: Good songs, naff lazy sexism for a musical made in this century. We can believe in a black Washington but women are either saints or slags.

Chapter Three – Part Three: The French Revolution


Andrzej Wajda, 1983, available for free on YouTube

One of the finest films on this list. Wajda’s portrayal of the last days of Danton, played here intelligently by Gérard Depardieu, is a piece of properly mature film-making. He assumes his audience are highly intelligent – there’s no attempt to fill you in on the events leading up the period in film. In a way, it doesn’t matter. You have what you need in the story. One of its most extraordinary accomplishments is to assume the political realities of the period instead of criticising them. This makes the Terror feel like a working political reality, like an event you are really living through rather than one seen through a window from the future. What appears insane from the outside actually becomes perfectly comprehensible inside the film, as all the main characters operate according to its logic. It’s gripping, knuckle-whitening stuff, and through it all you have this terrible sense of a crunching inevitable sense of doom. Wojciech Pszoniak’s performance as Robespierre is genuinely terrifying: his cold, dead eyes staring pointedly around him, softening only for those rare cases in which he can still feel empathy. Note the way that the Polish director had all of Danton’s allies played by French actors and all the allies of Robespierre played by Poles. He was making a comment on the Solidarity movement’s struggles in Poland as much as he was the French Revolution, and in doing so showing the persistent danger of ideas around the ‘general will’ through the ages.

Missus review: Fell asleep.

Part Two of the great big How To Be A Liberal film marathon will be published soon. 

Brexit: What the hell happens now – Errors and clarifications part three

Right, this is a major error. It’s basically about the role of financial services regulation in the EEA. Yeah, I know. Still your beating heart. Don’t let the excitement overcome you. But still, this is serious stuff. If we pursued soft Brexit, the absence of those rules in the EEA would stop our firms from enjoying passporting, which is one of the major reasons we might chose to pursue soft Brexit in the first place.

It’s by far the biggest I made in the book, taking up nearly a page of material. When I started realising that I’d made a mistake here, I wondered why no-one had pointed it out to me. After all, there have been plenty of ridiculously clever and well informed people emailing me about smaller matters in the book. And then I tried to work out what I’d got wrong and… no-one knew. Eventually I ended up on the phone with someone who had literally helped write the EEA agreement and even he was struggling. Reliable information about Efta is hard to get of. It’s a highly technical, out-of-the-way trading arrangement which is suddenly having a lot of attention thrown on it. There’s a real absence of experts who can authoritatively comment on it.

On page 69 I state that the EEA agreement doesn’t incorporate the three European supervisory agencies on banking, insurance and security markets. This is true, but dumb. It doesn’t incorporate any EU supervisory agency, because it makes its own. This was really sloppily written.

But more important is the central thrust of the argument – whether EU financial regulations have been filtered down to Efta. If they have, we could continue passporting in a soft Brexit. If not, we can’t. I thought they hadn’t. In reality,  EU financial services regulation put in place after the financial crash are currently being filtered through, so some haven’t and some have.

Efta is currently taking sections and figuring out how they would work for Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

There’s quite a bit of political momentum to this now and it is likely to be complete by March 2019, which is the earliest Britain would be joining Efta if it decided to pursue soft Brexit, or a transition in the single market. But financial regulations are sensitive areas so there could be a snag. Either way – the plans are not currently in place, but they are set to be in place by the time we arrived, if we ever chose to do so.

I can’t even tell you how many calls I have had to make to find out about this. It is really hard to get firm information about financial services in Efta. Also, it has been deeply tedious. I am considering this a form of moral punishment for my error.

But the key take-away message is this: Britain’s financial services firms would probably be able to still use passporting if it stayed in the single market through the EEA, but there is a chance they could not. This, like so much else in the Brexit debate, would be outside of our control.

I’ll have a long piece on the practicalities of EEA membership up on Politics.co.uk later this week which should be able to go into this stuff in more detail.


My role in the great Brexit conspiracy

My favourite online conspiracy theory is that I personally helped secure Brexit and then turned against it so I could make money off a book deal. I like it because it attributes to me foresight, political influence and money, none of which I have.

This conspiracy theory is thrown around by Brexiters on the right and left pretty much equally, along with variations which are slightly less hyperbolic but along the same theme. I specifically didn’t write a piece responding to them because it’s all so profoundly silly. Also, I hate it when journalists start poking around their own belly button like there is something of consequence to find there.

But a couple of non-insane people have suggested recently that it might be interesting for me to talk about my views on this stuff – and anyway it’d be useful to put all those thoughts in one place rather than have them scattered around tweets and broadcasts. Be warned, though. A load of self-important twaddle about weighing up competing principles follows. 

The Twitter conspiracy theorists are certainly right about one thing: I consider myself a eurosceptic, even now. I find it quite revealing that someone would think this weakens, rather than strengthens, my opposition to Brexit.

I don’t criticise Brexit because I am passionately in love with Europe. I am actually very wary of it. I criticise Brexit because I find the EU vastly superior to the moral and strategic inadequacy of British reactionaries. The choice between EU membership and Ukip’s Britain is like a choice between a rainy day by the seaside or a hot date with Freddy Krueger. It’s not a difficult decision to make.

If you asked me to outline my ideal outcome right now, I would want Britain in the outer band of a Europe of concentric circles – whether that is outside the EU in Efta or inside the EU in some sort of associate membership. That seems to me the best solution for Britain’s arm-length emotional relationship with the continent but also the best for Europe. Macron and Merkel are consolidating the eurozone. That decision makes sense now, but if it turned out to be a disaster, they’d do well to have the insurance policy of a looser political arrangement to fall back on.

My euroscepticism is based on an instinctive concern about centralised power. This demands that wherever possible you try to localise decision-making, so that those who are impacted on by a power have a hand in formulating it.  I still think that is a decent principle upon which to think about constitutional issues.

But there’s another principle that I hold dear: freedom of movement. I do not accept that the state has the right to tell people where they are allowed to travel or live.

Free movement in Europe is a first step towards abolishing borders altogether. In, say, fifty years, or a hundred, it is not so hard to imagine great regional trading blocks covering each continent, with free movement within them. Eventually these great blocks could introduce free movement between them and the first steps towards a border-free world would have been taken.

Right now all of this is so idealistic it is little more than sci-fi. But from this vantage point you can see a future where anyone can travel wherever they want on this earth. That is a future worth fighting for. Moderate politics is often portrayed as being in love with the status quo. To me, moderate politics is about having radical ideals, but pursuing them incrementally to a realistic timetable.

For years I had hardly bothered myself about the contradictions between these two principles. It’s easy, I thought. You can leave the EU and stay in the single market. Leaving the former allows you to address the dangers of ever-closer-union. Staying in the latter means you preserve free movement.

But actually it’s a much more complicated thing than that. You’d never have guessed this, but it turns out that the more you read about something, the more nuanced your views become. Now, a year or so after Brexit, I have read more about the single market than any emotionally normal person should have to endure. It makes free movement work on the basis that it has meshed economies together and that demands more interference than I would have countenanced before.

The scales have tipped, in my mind, slightly towards the interference line, in order to preserve free movement. But this is a day-to-day thing, not some sweeping change. Not only do I still consider myself eurosceptic, I wish those who are committed to the European project were also more eurosceptic. If you’re legislating across a continent, you should legislate sparingly. More dialogue between sensible eurosceptics and sensible europhiles, as happens in some parts of the Remain movement, would be welcome (not that anyone in Europe is listening to us right now).

Have there been times in the past that I’ve clearly talked ignorant nonsense on the EU? Certainly there have been. I find this piece, which I wrote during the Greek crisis, particularly embarrassing, not least because many bits of it are wrong. I remember getting quite shouty about it on a Russian radio talk show too. Almost exactly a year later, during the Brexit campaign, my thinking was already more mature. This piece on comparative risk sees me shifting a bit, and I wrote on Brexit as the Trumpification of British politics around the same time. Ten days later, Nigel Farage would unveil his ‘breaking point’ poster and Jo Cox would be murdered in the street by a fascist. By then it was obvious how severe the danger of Brexit was, the kind of forces it had unleashed. It was clear that this thing had nothing to do with constitutional debate about the appropriate level of regulation and everything to do with a nation experiencing a grotesque reactionary spasm.

I expected to have to go down to the polling station and vote Remain with a heavy heart, but Farage and his allies made me proud to do it. When I discovered that these events had not been enough for the British public to kick back against the anti-immigrant lobby, it was heartbreaking.

More than anything, this is a question of priorities. No ideal matters more than protecting immigrants in Britain and ensuring that British liberalism and multiculturalism are not trampled on by reactionaries on the right and left.

Since the vote we have treated immigrants like dirt. The thug end of the spectrum has attacked and insulted them in the street. The civilised end of the spectrum has discussed them as things to be used, chips in a poker game with the EU. Journalists have rarely bothered to talk to them about how they feel or the ways in which Brexit has changed their lives. They are a problem to be fixed, at best. Even those who sympathise with them have been smeared as ‘citizens of nowhere’ or ‘anywhere people’. Now many are leaving and others simply refuse to come.

This is about what kind of a country we want to be. It’s about a country which is kind and open and tolerant, one with a sense of humour, one which does not demand everyone thinks the same way, which respects the individual, which plans cautiously, which is moderate in its politics and wary of those who speak in absolute terms. I miss that country very much. I would like to have it back. And there’s really no regulatory debate which can live up to that.

Thankfully I have this massive swimming pool full of cash in the basement which I made from selling books on trade policy, so I will now go take a plunge in there and it will undoubtedly make me feel better about the whole thing.


14121316Page 11: In a sentence on companies that still make physical products in Britain I included British American Tobacco. This is a bona fide 100% cock up. BAT decided to close its last UK tobacco factory, in Southampton, in 2005.

Page 138-139: I laid out a few issues with the EU’s Community Plant Variety Office in this section. As it happens, a month after the book was published, the UK unexpectedly signed up to the new European Unified Patent Court. That means that Brits will still have an avenue to get their patents recognised across Europe. The court specifically recognises European Court of Justice jurisdiction on the interpretation of EU law on plant variety as well, so this quite esoteric area of an already esoteric issue is actually directly addressed. Quite how we’re going to stay in this system given that Theresa May promised to remove us from the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction is another matter entirely. The whole subject is a mess. I mapped out its various complexities in this Politics.co.uk piece and then quickly felt like I might jump off a tall building.

Brexit: What the hell happens now: Errors and clarifications part one

14121316This is the first of what will likely be several posts outlining errors I made in the Brexit book. Most of these have been sent in by readers. I didn’t mention in the emails or in the acknowledgement that I’d use their names so I won’t publish them here, but if you were one of the people who gave me a nudge on certain things or highlighted what I was getting wrong: thank you. That sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. I’m constantly amazed by the wit, humour and intellectual curiosity of the emails I get. It’s a privilege to receive them.

So far I haven’t found any sustained errors. The mistakes are all fairly minor. Certainly none of them discount the arguments the book makes. But there are quite a few around and a couple of howlers. I’ll outline what I got wrong on this site as and when I have time to write it up, then when I’m all done I’ll put the various blog posts together into a master list of stuff I cocked up which readers can refer to.

Here, I’m getting some basic stuff out the way. The next post will look at rather more substantial errors I think I’ve made on the price of government bonds, the tariff arrangements on component parts and international law around patents. Those require a few phone calls, either to map out exactly what I got wrong or just to provide a bit more depth. After that I plan to go through the book again, with the extra information I’ve had since mid-October, and see if there’s anything else amiss. If you’ve spotted something, do email me at iandunt23@gmail.com.

Anyway, here goes:

Page 32: I incorrectly stated that the European Council and the European Parliament vote according to a qualified majority on the Article 50 deal. In actual fact, only the European Council does this. The parliament will be voting according to a simple majority.

Page 47: The diagram wrongly states that Estonia is outside the eurozone. Actually, Estonia joined the eurozone on New Year’s Eve 2010. It was the first ex-Soviet state to do so. The diagram also wrongly states that Poland is in the eurozone. In actual fact it is outside. As per the Treaty of Accession, however, it must at some point adopt the euro. Quite when this will be is anyone’s guess.

Page 61: I wrote that the Treaty of Rome “does not mention freedom of movement” and that the focus was on free movement of labour. This is kind of true and kind of false. In actual fact, Article Three enshrines free movement for “persons, services and capital” and it does mention free movement specifically. However, the document is also quite clear that it is talking about workers. “Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Community by the end of the transitional period at the latest,” it reads. “Such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the member states as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment.” So I’m literally wrong, but technically right, if that makes sense.

Page 125: ‘Cheltenham Ladies School’ should read ‘Cheltenham Ladies’ College’.

Right, that’s it for now. More substantial errors will be laid out in the next blog.

How I got lost in the jungle


Terror paralyses you. You can’t move. You can’t think straight. Your body goes into a state of hysterical paralysis. It’s like someone has turned up the music to an impossible volume and you’ll never be able to find the control. It drives you crazy.

I’ve never experienced it before. I’ve been afraid before, or anxious, but never terrified. But then I’ve never been lost in the jungle before.  As it happened, the phrase kept on repeating in my head over and over again, like an emergency alarm. ‘Lost in the jungle’ seemed a monumental sentence. Unlike the problems you’d usually face, this could realistically end with death. Admittedly, I’m not sure it was technically a jungle. I have no idea what the technical definition of jungle is. But for me, it is a place that is covered in trees and fucking terrifying to get lost in.

I’d looked in every direction and I couldn’t find the trail. I had no plan and no idea where I was. No one knew I was there. I was well and truly screwed.

The expedition was ill-prepared from the start. I’d taken to walking up mountains recently. Nothing really masculine – no ropes or climbing or the like – just arduous strolls really. They beat off a hangover like nothing else in the world and there’s something really satisfying about spending the evening drinking, then climbing a mountain and starting to drink again with people who’ve been at their job all day. You get all the accomplishment and none of the work.

So I woke up hungover on Saturday morning and thought I’d try to reach the summit at El Cani, a 1,500 acre private nature reserve about 20km east of Pucon, where I was staying in south Chile. You could tell from the few other people I saw in the park that the trek, which goes up 1,500 metres on treacherous, winding pathways, was demanding. They all had large backpacks, were loaded up with water, and carried those weird skiing poles you see hikers with sometimes. I had shoes from Zara with literally no grip at all, a Ted Baker manbag, 750ml of water and an empanada. Basically, I was an idiot. I’d avoided all the tours and tourist excursions available Puco and headed on my own on a local bus to the reserve.

The woman at the entrance office seemed a bit perturbed by how I as dressed. Are you sure you don’t have any questions? she asked as I set off. I told her it was fine.

The map and the trail were clear enough, but it was hard going – much harder than I thought. At 600 metres elevation I could feel my brain beating in my head and I was covered in sweat. My clothes were sticking to me. I was constantly fighting the temptation to just down the water. My shoes were slipping and sliding all over the place.

There was a lodge marked in the trail, about halfway up. Leading off from the lodge seemed to be two light trails. It didn’t occur to me that I could open the gate, pass through the lodge and follow the trail on the other side. Instead, I spent my time irritably trying to figure out which of the two light trails to take.

This is a common error in the way I think. I can’t even count the times I’ve spent an hour lost in a video game, exploring unpromising corridors, then returned to where I originally was and seen a big open door there. It’s also why I’m shit at chess. I’ll spend ten minutes working out my strategy five moves ahead only to watch my opponent move their bishops two spaces and take my queen. I have a tendency to get lost in the reasoning without first having established the basic parameters of the question.

I tried the trail which looked more inviting, but it was going downhill too much for my liking, so after a few minutes I retraced it back to the lodge and tried the other one. It was here that my judgement became seriously impaired. After a while there plainly was no trail at all but I started imposing one on the landscape. Surely this fallen tree trunk meant I should stick to the left, I thought. Surely this expanse of grass was inviting enough to stand in for the road. Each time I made a decision like that I kept on trying to photocopy the image of the route I was taking into my brain so I would remember which way I’d come if I had to double back.

If you had told me that what I was looking at was a trail at the start of the trek, I’d have laughed at you. It’s true that the route had started as a wide road and gotten progressively smaller, but there are no excuses: my reasoning was extremely poor. It had been degraded, partly through exhaustion and lack of water, partly through bloody-mindedness.

I started trudging through a dark, soggy canopy, where the muddy ground, mixed with old fallen trees, crackled beneath my feet and vividly coloured, almost cartoonish mushrooms burst out from the bark. Large and silent black insects, like flying ink dots, kept flying around my face. And still I pressed on.

After about five minutes I got to a large fallen tree and started to clamber over it. At the top something stopped me. Surely this was too much, I thought. Lots of people wouldn’t be able to climb this thing. I hesitated and then remembered where I was and decided to turn back. But even then there was a voice in my head poking at me for being cowardly.

Once I was off the tree, some degree of sense returned and I quickly became nervous about my predicament. None of the photocopies I’d tried to take with my mind’s eye had worked. Any two directions back looked the same as each other. I could feel the panic rising in the back of my throat. Earlier I’d told myself that if I got lost I could just walk downhill, but that does no good at all. The area is crowded with ravines and valleys and mazes of trees.

And then I did something very stupid: I kept making decisions. I switched into militarised public school mode.

I hated public school and I don’t believe in it. It was an unpleasant, unkind experience. But there’s one good thing about it: the constant leadership message they hammer into you does take over in times of emergency. When things get serious, I feel a burning need to take charge, to make a decision and implement it, never to fall into uncertainty and fear. It’s served me pretty well through the years. I’ve always been reassured by that part of myself taking over in times of crisis.

I started walking and simultaneously scanning the environment and concluding very quickly which of the sights would have looked more like a path to me a few minutes earlier. But I was fooling myself. I wasn’t really making decisions. I was barely evaluating the environment at all. It had become far more reassuring to me to be doing something, to be walking in a given direction, than it was to stop and accept the gravity of what was happening.

I have a tendency when there is a problem – whether it is mine or someone else’s, whether it’s romantic or social or professional or whatever – to want to break it down into manageable goals and work out what actions it would take to secure those goals. I only really get depressed about something when there’s wallowing. I need to act, to be doing something about it, and no matter how bad things are I start feeling better about them as soon as I do. Now that tendency was betraying me. I was afraid of standing still and accepting that I was lost, so I kept making decisions, I kept moving, even though it was plainly making the situation worse.

It wasn’t a practical strategy. It was an emotional one. Arguably during this period I had become functionally insane. I was committing counter-productive actions because of how they made me feel rather then their consequence in the real world. After five minutes of this, I finally realised I had no idea where I was. I was lost in the jungle.

That’s when the terror struck. It was exactly like they describe it in books: icy fingers closing around my heart. It expressed itself in the form of claustrophobia. Being lost didn’t feel like a state. It felt like a place. And wherever I went – whether I walked five steps left or right – I was in the same place, the place called lost. Lost was like a thick wooden coffin closing in on me, like something I could feel my breath against.

The moments of terror, when I became inactive with panic, lasted a minute or so at a time. Then I’d get a wave of reason again. I started to think about rationing what I had. I’d about 400ml of water left and half an empanada, as well as some mints, which I was hoping might give me a sugar boost if necessary. I couldn’t sleep on the ground – there were reptiles and massive spiders everywhere and I’d read on the internet there were pumas too. I’d have to climb a tree and sleep there.

I wondered when people would realise I was missing. The woman at the entrance wouldn’t. People camp up here all the time. And anyway, I hadn’t left a phone number with her. I was meeting my friend Zita in Santiago the next day, but she was a new friend who communicated with me, like everyone here, on WhatsApp. She was unlikely to call for a rescue because I didn’t turn up, and anyway she didn’t know where I was. I didn’t tell my family I was staying in Pucon. My only hope was that I’d mentioned the park I was in on Twitter earlier. If hadn’t contacted them in a couple of days, when my flight was due to take me to them for Christmas, my family would inevitably have searched Twitter for what I had been doing, given that I’m always on there babbling away. But two days obviously seemed a very long time.

There was no reception. I checked my phone anyway and the no-reception icon made me feel terribly alone. It’s ridiculous of course. Google maps was hardly going to show a path which anyway did not exist. But I’m so used to this object guiding me that its sudden uselessness sent a shiver through my heart.

All told, I was lost for about half an hour. Half an hour of pant-wetting, bona-fide fucking terror. Eventually I saw a line of mud amid the grass and followed it. I think it was the downhill trail I’d half-heartedly followed for a bit earlier. It led me back to that camp site.

I sat down and let the panic subsume, which took a while. Then I had a choice to make. Finish the climb or head back down. I decided to finish it. I didn’t want the last proper day of travelling to be a memory of failure. So I started climbing again. At the time, it felt like the bravest thing I’d ever done. The route got tougher. My boots were slipping and sliding all over the place, next to canyons and crevices.

The Mapuche Pewenche people ask the Pewenche trees permission to enter as they near the summit, at about 1,400 metres. I did the same. I wasn’t being flippant or superstitious. Embarrassingly enough, I actually meant it. My nerves were shredded and I figured that, atheist or not, I could use all the help I could get.

The view at the top – with five snow topped volcanoes in a 360 degree view – was spectacular but it only brought on another wave of anxiety. Now that I could see for miles in the distance, I realised how far away from anything I was. The trail, no matter how vertiginous or slippery, was mentally easier. It meant ‘go forward’ and that’s about as much as I could handle. Seeing it all from the peak brought back that feeling of claustrophobia.

But just down from it there was a wooden symbol signifying that you had reached the peak. This meant much more to me. It was a sign that I’d swallowed down the fear I’d felt, kept climbing and accomplished what I’d set out to do. I didn’t take a photo of the five volcanoes, but I took a selfie of me by the wooden symbol. By this point, it was more about me than it was about the view.

The way down was just an exercise in pain really. My feet, ankles, knees, calfs and lower back were killing me. At any moment, my shoes would slide downwards and I’d have to frantically try to rebalance. I was by this point completely out of water, drenched in sweat and emotionally and physically exhausted. But I made it, with half an hour to spare for the last bus into town.

Was I really in that much danger? Probably not. No matter how bad my reasoning in those crucial ten minutes, it was still only ten minutes. There were 36 people in the park that day, all following the same trail. If I’d stood where I was and shouted for help for long enough, someone would have heard, as unseemly and embarrassing as it would have been.

And the crevices and dramatic slopes which blocked my way, crevices which put the fear in me when I was lost, would actually have been helpful in limiting my options, if I’d stopped long enough and thought in a structured way about how to get back. Eventually I would have started to do that.

So why the fear? Well for a start you take a Londoner and make him lost in the jungle and he’ll likely shit himself, because it’s so far outside his spectrum of experience. But it was more than that. Being lost represented the ultimate loss of control. I couldn’t make my problem submit to my way of coming to a solution. The method I use to impose order upon the situation had actually made it more chaotic. And the endless maze of trees and slopes resembled the inner panic in my head in a way which exacerbated both of them.

It felt like a mental earthquake: the terror of something solid and reliable shifting under your feet.

When I got back to town I had a pint of cold beer. Then I found the best restaurant around and bought a steak. I ordered the most expensive Chilean red on the menu and followed it up with a pisco sour. I thought about the jungle, now cloaked in darkness. I’m not sure I can ever remember anything tasting so good.


Don’t let a camera spoil your holiday


There’s no joy in just looking at things. We’ve all got Google. We know what things look like. Travelling half way around the world just to look at a thing is a completely bizarre and unsatisfying way to spend your time.

But most tourism is spent just looking. The countries people visit do it by blocking off sites. And the people who visit them do it by closing themselves off from the place they’re in.

Stonehenge is a case in point. It has none of its mystery when you stare at it from a distance, with the A303 straining beside it. You get nothing from that experience you wouldn’t get from a Stonehenge calendar in one of those dreadful shops full of incense and dream catchers.

But spend the evening at Stonehenge on summer solstice and it’s another matter entirely. You approach in the dark, late at night. Groups of nasty teenagers sit on the pathway, slightly dangerous. People try to sell you drugs. Families there for the sunrise stare out from their locked cars with unconcealed dismay.

Then the stones suddenly loom up at you from the path – supremely eerie. Suddenly they are not remotely new-agey, but ominous and unknowable. Being able to touch them, being among them, means everything.

This is the case for ruins everywhere, from Tikal to Ankor Wat. Where one can clamber on something, one can connect with it. Where one can only see it, it means little more than watching it on TV. There are obviously concerns about degradation. The best sites, like Tikal, block off some areas but allow interaction with others. I’m not an expert and of course we need them to last for another generation. But if all the next generation can do is stare at it, there is little point in having done so. Let them look at photos and be done with it.

What goes for ruins goes for natural beauty too. I finally arrived at the Atacama desert last weekend and it was a disappointing experience.

I’ve managed to avoid the backpacker trail all trip, mostly by using Air BnB and socialising just with Chileans. It hasn’t been difficult. There have hardly been any backpackers to see. But once you get to San Pedro, the town everything in Atacama is based from, you’re suddenly plugged into a key hub of a backpacker trail you never knew existed. You can’t avoid it. You have to stay in a hostel and arrange tours from there.

The backpackers crowd is the same as it was when I was spending all my time in hostels. The Israelis stick to themselves, the Chinese mostly sit in corners engrossed in technology, French travellers are disliked by almost everyone, Kiwis cling to other Kiwis with a bit too much desperation, Brits and Australians want to be more interesting than they really are. All of them, I think possibly to a man, were either about to take the three day organised trip into Bolivia or had just finished it. They were all doing the exact same route. No one was really in Chile in any meaningful sense. They were just looking at it, as if looking at Stonehenge with the A303 in the distance.

They’re not boring people. I met several I really liked. It was a profound relief to speak English and there were a few drunken nights outside which I enjoyed, because drunken nights outside are one of life’s great pleasures. But there’s something terribly conservative about young people, miles from home, all clinging religiously to a designated, well established course.

Then the tours started and I slumped into a temporary period of catatonic despair. It’s uniquely dispiriting, after a couple of weeks of independent travel, to have to stump up cash, get on a tour bus and be corralled from one place to the next. No matter what you’re seeing – whether it’s wonderful or disappointing – being given a parent in the form of a tour guide makes it impossible to enjoy.

As it happens, the Atacama desert is wonderful. It’s an exercise in God-like watercolours: white volcano tops, blue lagoons, white salt flats and red earth. But at each spot you are simply dropped off and pointed at the pathway. You cannot deviate from the pathway. So your group and a herd of similar ones from other hostels, all brought to the same places at the same times, traipse along, take a photo at the designated spots, and move on. There is no touching or interaction. You are only there to look.

Many people barely seem present at all. They approach something, photograph it, and walk away, without even spending a second to take it in. One imagines they will put these photos on Facebook or, worse, punish their friends with them in person. In either case, they are seeing these things for others’ eyes, eyes which happen not to care.

But even they are not as bad as the selfie takers. There are selfie sticks everywhere and they are getting increasingly long. Many people seemed to only taking selfies.

I’m a bit wary of the bourgeois back-patting involved in criticising selfies. It reminds me a little of people who seem so pleased with themselves for not watching TV. But honestly, it takes an extraordinary degree of self-regard to go to one of the most beautiful places on earth and take a picture of your own face.

There are moments when you can find travelling nirvana, but they are few and far between. We were actually able to clamber over rocks at one salt flat and I managed to get away from the others. When alone, you properly realise what an alien landscape it is. It’s weird enough that everything is salt. But this isn’t even sea salt. It’s volcanic salt. It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen, like a landscape of witches’ teeth. When the wind clatters one piece against another it makes a sound like crystal. Your head pounds from the altitude and sand has filled up your nose, making it constantly feel bunged. The sun is punishing. Standing on a sand crystal promenade, gazing out on a blue lake, with a volcano in front of you, desert around you, and a cruel, relentless wind filling your ears, it’s easy to imagine you’re on an alien planet.

And then there are the tiny moments of chaos you cannot avoid, no matter how regimented your schedule. I came back from a tour one night with a couple of friends and we suddenly found ourselves engulfed in some sort of Virgin Mary procession. At the front, men in costumes danced insanely. At the back a small glass-encased statue of the Virgin was carried aloft. And in front of it, three men holding a bar with ornamental bulls’ heads on it rushed up to observers – including me – and suggestively thrust it at their groin.

Afterwards, we had to make the half hour walk back to the hostel through the desert in perfect darkness and, for a moment, it was all rather startling and ancient. But then we got back and it returned to normal.

I’m trying to get out the desert now. Tonight, I get a flight from Calama, a copper mining town on the outskirts of Atacama, to Santiago, from where I’ll head south.

It’s a horrible place which I can’t wait to leave. I’ve seen two dead cats in less than 24 hours – not a good sign. The people mostly seem half asleep, except for the groups of men who gather on street corners so they can wolf-whistle at women. It’s the only town in Chile I’ve actively disliked. The dust keeps getting behind my ears, the floor of the place I ate at yesterday had a massive spider crawling on it, and I had to keep my eyes out as I walked home at night because half the guys here are sketchy as fuck. It’s not pleasant. But I’m at least forced to be part of it. I can’t just look at it. And anyway, there’s nothing here to take pictures of.

Chileans create order where none should exist


Chileans are the only people I know of who have formalised the process of starting a romantic relationship. They call it ‘pedir pololeo’. It’s basically a proposal to become boyfriend and girlfriend. Of course, they’ve usually kissed or slept together by this point – they’re not freaks – but you’re not technically going out until this event has taken place. Like marriage proposals they can be either simple or elaborate. And like marriage proposals, it’s usually the man who does it.

One one level, this is pure genius. I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with people who are unclear as to whether they’re going out yet. How many coffees or beers have we all had with friends as they ponder whether they’re technically in a relationship with the person they’re dating?

My usual advice takes the form of asking whether it’s OK for them to sleep with someone else. If the answer is no, they’re in a relationship. Sexual exclusivity is the best functioning definition of it. (Unless you’re in an open relationship blah blah blah. I find people in open relationships the most tedious to talk to about this subject. They love telling you about the rules, they all have a tremor of emotional catastrophe going on just behind the eyes and none of them are half as interesting as they think they are.)

The proposal also clears up that old question pre-married couples love asking each other: Which day shall we pick as our anniversary? Our first kiss, our first shag or something else? Under this system, the day you pidiste polelelo is the official starting date. Job done.

It clears up many things and makes perfect sense. And it’s typical of the way Chileans seems intent on imposing order in the midst of total chaos.


Chileans love comparing themselves favourably to other Latinos, especially now that Argentina’s empty box economy is falling apart in plain sight. Their sense of nationhood seems partly to be defined by an (entirely valid) perception that they are a bastion of order in a continent of chaos. They proudly tell you they work like Europeans, by which they mean hard. Even the Germans are impressed. A German logistics officer told me admiringly that they are very good military shoppers. “They buy their warships from the British and their infantry equipment from the Germans,” he said with a wry smile. It’s all very well organised.

But amidst this order, the landscape is borderline uninhabitable. The northern part of Chile, which I’m passing through now, is gradually turning into desert. There are cacti everywhere. The ground is dry and majestic, with big sweeping mountains waving up on every horizon. A strange red plant – it looks like the kind of thing which would give someone super powers in a Marvel film – covers huge patches of earth. Every mile you go it becomes more and more like Tatooine. And it’ll only become more severe as I approach the Atacama desert, which Nasa uses to trail equipment for use on Mars. It’s as close to an alien landscape as you’ll find on earth.

Nearly all of it is empty. Almost ninety per cent of Chile’s population lives in the greater Santiago area, so there’s hardly anyone left to live here. The journeys between towns are severe affairs, taking days. After all, this is a sliver of continent masquerading as a country. It is just taking the piss with how long it is.


There are hardly any cars on the road or settlements. You look out the window for hours on end without seeing any signs of life, except for the occasional flapping white flags of sweet bun sellers, who board the coaches to sell their wares to the passengers.

But even in this landscape, Chilean order endures. The sweet bun sellers are picked up in one location, then dropped off at the next, where they wait for a coach in the other direction to start the process again. Before I knew how this system operated I asked the conductor whether we would be stopping for food. He looked at me as if I were mad. Nothing is allowed to slow the progress of the vehicle.

The sleepy, dusty towns are full of polite, reserved workers. The buses ferrying us between them are extremely comfortable, even luxurious. They arrive on time, leave on the dot and never take longer than five minutes to disembark passengers, pick up new ones, and set off again. Once you’re aboard, a ticket operator comes on and checks your papers, including your passport or national ID number.

I obviously wasn’t very impressed by the demand for identification on a bus, but then it’s to this country’s great credit that you have to remind yourself how recently they were a military dictatorship. That Chilean sense of order isn’t just a defensive barricade against the landscape, or a bulwark against Latino poverty and chaos. It’s also an underlying current of fascism and fear of fascism.


Take the police, who summarise many of the tensions in Chilean society. On the one hand, they are the only police force I know of in Latin America who don’t take bribes. The people here, who almost all instinctively distrust them, are rightly very proud of this. Women also tell me they can be trusted and that they would seek help from them if they were attacked. Again, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in many other Latin countries. In Guatemala, for instance, many of them are just heavily armed children – often given shotguns, with their spray of pellets, as a substitute for teaching them how to shoot.

But Chilean police are also brutal. They have a reputation for being incredibly violent during the frequent student demonstrations here.

A couple of days ago I saw two of them take down an aggressive drunk by the beach. At first, all I could see were flying fists, but then I spotted the signature brown uniform. I’ve seen police take people down brutally in England before. But even then their actions are clearly deliberate and trained – pressure points, or responses to orders, or specifics blows to the solar plexus to temporarily incapacitate someone. This was different. It was a brawl. Punches to the face, headlocks, a couple of kicks to the ribs: a pub fight.

Technically the police are called ‘carabineros’. But every Chilean I’ve met refers to them by the vaguely disparaging term ‘pacos’. I’m told there are efforts to make it illegal to call them that. It gives some indication of the undercurrents of authoritarianism which Chilean orderliness can contain.