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.

 

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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.

BREXIT: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENS NOW: ERRORS AND CLARIFICATIONS PART TWO

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

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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.

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Don’t let a camera spoil your holiday

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Chileans create order where none should exist

image

Chileans are the only people I know of who have formalised the process of starting a romantic relationship. They call it ‘pedis polelelo’. 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 people 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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

A quick reminder that the smartphone is one of the greatest inventions of your lifetime

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Santiago at night

A little while back, a series of photos showing couples playing with their smartphones went viral. The artist had removed the smartphone from the image, instantly making them look ghostly and empty. It was all terribly clever and it dominated Facebook and Twitter for a week or so.

Of course, you could remove books from images of couples reading them and that too would look ghostly and empty. But no matter. The image clearly spoke to people and was shared widely. Much of this sharing would have taken place on smartphones, but it’s not worth getting bogged down in such obvious cynicism. It’s perfectly valid to be wary of something you partake in. That’s pretty much how I get through Grand Theft Auto.

Look around at any public scene, anywhere in the world, and you will likely see a lot of people with their faces buried in their smartphones. The growing consensus is that we are not as present as we used to be, that we are ignoring real relationships for virtual ones with vague acquaintances on screen.

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Valparaiso. An extraordinary city in which almost every inch of wall space is covered in graffiti.

It can look weird. It’s always strange when technology introduces a major change in the way people behave, especially physically. And indeed a lot of online interactions are odd. Relationships which used to be fleeting – someone you had a fling with ten years ago, or that you played with when you were ten – are now often silent satellites of your current social interactions, connected to you well past the point when it should have ended.

And all this comes as social media and bespoke information feeds divide us into political ghettos – tiny self-sufficient echo chambers of thought which are making us ever more intolerant of our differences.

So it’s worth remembering every so often that these tiny devices in our pockets are actually marvellous bits of magic, which generally help develop connections between people rather than rupture them.

This is first time I’ve done proper travelling since I’ve had a smart phone and it is a completely different experience. Back in the day, it was a struggle to meet people from the country you were staying in. It was like a movie. You drifted through these places, watching people but not really interacting with them. You rarely spoke to them, you rarely entered their homes. If you did it was often as some sort of vaguely unethical ‘experience life in the slums’ tourism package, or even a volunteering mission which gap year students paid absurd amounts of money for. Most of your time socialising was with other people roughly your age, from countries roughly like your own, in a hostel patio.

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Valparaiso, Valpa to the locals, is like a mix of Rio de Janeiro, Montreal and Portsmouth

Air BnB changed all that. There’s no reason to a hostel anymore. For less money you can stay with people themselves in their spare rooms. It might not be an exact replica of life in the country you’re visiting. They’re more likely to be young and internationally-minded than the rest of the population, for instance. But it is a chance to socialise with the people who you would otherwise just have looked at from a café. You get to ask them questions about their lives  and learn about them beyond the crude generalisations you had before. And you actually end up with a pretty workable idea of what life in the country you’re travelling in is like.

It also means, in this case, that I’m speaking Spanish all the time. It’s exhausting. Every conversation is an intellectual exercise of fitting my meaning into the limited words I know. It’s particular odd for me, because I never really learned those words as a foreign language. Spanish was my first language, but I lost it all when I went to live in the UK at the age of four and learned English (off Andy Peters and Phillip Schofield on CBBC – cheers lads). So I’m constantly surprised to discover that certain words have been dug up and are now available to me again, or, more commonly, that they’re not. Alarmingly, it sometimes feels like I’m in a protracted negotiation with the filing cabinet of my own brain.

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Valparaiso at night

There’s a kind of social exasperation to being plunged into using a language you have not mastered. I’ve noticed that when I break off from unsuccessfully trying to formulate a Spanish sentence and mutter something irritably in English, people look visibly happy and relieved, as if it’s proof that I’m not simple. We know that people who are struggling with language are not idiots, but sometimes we forget.

There is a definite loneliness to not being able to make yourself properly understood, as if you walk around in a membrane through which only half the information gets in. Bar situations are particularly difficult. Large groups are basically incomprehensible, as is any conversation where there’s loud music. In both cases I pretty much have to check out.

So WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook are a life saver. It allows you to dip into conversations with friends where you can make yourself perfectly well understood, or political arguments where you are no longer suspected of being simple-minded (stop laughing at the back). It’s like lots of mini holidays from the stresses and strains of struggling in a foreign language.

It’s also terribly nice, when you are constantly starting relationships large and small on the road, to be able to chat to people who’ve known you for a long time, and know you well, without having to go to an internet café or pour coins into a pay phone.

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More Valpa, reflecting Chile’s commitment to colour.

At any moment that I’m on my phone doing these things I am disconnected from my immediate environment. While I organise the place I’m staying next, or having a much needed chat with an old friend, I am that ghoul staring blankly at the smart phone. But it’s not disconnection that’s taking place, it’s simply a temporarily non-visible connection. To look at this device – which is creating face-to-face and virtual relationships where previously none existed – and conclude that it is separating us off from one another is superficial.

Once the shock of the iPhone came out, the changes smart phones introduced mostly came through apps. That slow pace of change has arguably made us complacent about how positively this device is changing the world around us. But take a step back and it’s a plainly a supremely human bit of technology. We hardly use the phone function of these devices anymore. But the fact this revolutionary bit of technology developed through a phone handset tells you everything you need to know about its positive implications. It brings people together more than it isolates them.

And anyway, think back to before smart phones were invented. Were you constantly starting up conversations with people on the street? Were you fuck.

The world would be more reassuring if we could feel evil

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In Pinochet’s Londres 38 detention centre, an estimated two thousand people – mostly leftists in their twenties – were detained and tortured. They were blindfolded the entire time they were there, apart from when they used the toilet. They were burned and disfigured, mutilated. Ninety eight of them, including two pregnant women, were never heard of again.

I walked around Londres 38 the other day and felt nothing. It’s not the first time it’s happened. When I was in school, we went on a trip to Rome. I remember my history teacher at the time saying that you could feel the evil emanating off the Colosseum, but when I got there I didn’t feel anything.

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I didn’t feel anything in the S21 centre in Cambodia, where 20,000 people were tortured and killed in the Kyhmer Rouge’s wave of insanity and terror. I didn’t feel it in My Lai, the Vietnamese village preserved as it was when American soldiers gang-raped and mutilated the women who lived there and killed up to 504 unarmed civilians.

And I didn’t feel it in Auschwitz either. I visited the concentration camp on a blisteringly warm day, alongside hundreds of tourists and school groups. Certain sights shocked me – the piles of hair and glasses, for instance – but I stood in the ruins of the gas chambers and I just couldn’t access the emotional place the location demanded of me.

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I really liked our tour guide that day. When one visitor suggested that this is what happens when extremism goes unchecked, she replied: “This wasn’t about extremism. Only conformity can explain what happened here.” I thought it was very beautiful and true. But later, just before we broke up, she said that visiting the camp shouldn’t be about feeling sad, that it should instead reconfirm our love of life. She advised us to go out that night, eat well, drink wine, and savour it. I spend much of my life doing precisely those things, so I thought honestly that it might be more appropriate to allow the sadness and horror of that place to sink in, to try to give it some of the recognition it deserved. But honestly I didn’t feel that horror or even that sadness. My feelings about the holocaust, like everyone else’s, were well developed by the time I visited. Being in one of the places where it happened to take place did not add or subtract from them.

This is not some protracted admission that I’m dead inside (I’ll write that later). Show me a film about the holocaust and I’ll start crying pretty much the exact second the director intends me to. But locations themselves don’t seem to have any impact on me.

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Our culture presumes that some things are so terrible they soak into the walls of the places where they happen. It is what almost all horror films are based on. And why not? Rooms take on all sorts of aspects for us, positive as well as negative. They are bigger than the sum of their part. My teenage bedroom, where so many of my formative experiences took place, has an almost mystical presence in mind.

A few months ago I watched workers demolish the house next door. One man with a hammer took about an hour to completely destroy a room, breaking down the walls with each swing. And I thought: is that all it takes to destroy a room? For someone, that room he just ended has the same significance as my teenage bedroom. Rooms take on this grand meaning for us, but they are no more resilient than anything made of material. They are as meaningful as school chairs or drain pipes. They are like god: Everything we imagine they contain is in fact an expression of ourselves.

So I walked around Londres 38, in the pebble-stoned, sun-kissed heart of Santiago, and I felt nothing. The rooms could quite easily be converted into a normal house and someone would sit and watch telly in them and eat popcorn and they would be none the wiser that this was a place of despair and injustice and death.

There’s something even more disturbing about that. Evil of that sort is not this great spiritual darkness which taints the physical world in which it is expressed. It is more chaotic and meaningless. It happens and no-one is any the wiser. The place is not haunted. The darkness does not lurk in corridors. It is as if it never happened. I kept on thinking of a Grant Morrison quote, which ran something along the lines of: “Every room can be the worst room in the world.”

It’s that banal. I wish Londres 38 was more upsetting. It would ultimately be reassuring if it was.

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