We’re eating at a restaurant in the ‘burbs to the east of Santiago, which has been recommended to us as distinctively Chilean. We were driven out here by one of the plush hotel cars, and swishing over overpasses, and swooping through underpasses, we might have been anywhere in the developed world. Still, I’ve read my stats — I know that while the average income here is around $12,000 per annum, perhaps 40 per cent of the population remain below the United Nations poverty line. Even so, if Chile is the England of South America, Santiago is doing a remarkably good job of looking like its Basingstoke.
The Santiago Metro could make any other mass urban-transit system feel like a raddled old whore. I’m staying in a flashy hotel in the upmarket El Golf district, and from the 10th floor this teeming, Latin American capital appears cluttered with the banal forms of mirror-shiny buildings. They transform the city into a desktop covered with modular trays: are there office workers in that one, or paperclips? But the Metro, now there’s a thing. I’ve never come across a subway station with its own preserved-fruit shop and lending library. There are also oil paintings on the platforms, and how clean is that? They’re big, well-lit canvases of seaside views and rural farms, perhaps a little neo-realist for my taste — but you can’t have everything. Hell, in Santiago, if you so desire, you can ride smoothly into the centre of town, while reading a Spanish translation of Ken Follett, and stuffing yourself with peaches in syrup. Moscow, eat your dark heart out.
Los Angeles, again. Sitting in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset, I listen idly to the beautiful native Angeleno as she tells me what she and her boyfriend – an equally beautiful Spaniard – did last New Year’s Eve. “We drove all the way out to the Joshua Tree, man, and we did some ‘shrooms and we just let it all sink in.”
Slogging up through the woods and on to the main ridge of the Chilterns on a damp morning in late autumn, the joys of summer rambles seem long departed. Ah! If only I could recapture that fearless rapture with which I turned the golden key, wrenched open the door and ran laughing down the corridor into the Queen of Hearts’ rose garden. Dandelion days! Sweet scattered spore of youth! When to the sessions of sweet silent thought we summon up … and so on and so forth, jaw-jaw, bore-bloody-bore. No, the fact is that it’s pissing down and I’m a middle-class, middle-aged man making tea on a miniature gas stove in a tiny covert, while down the muddy track beside me ride upper-class, middle-aged women on chestnut stallions, exchanging the small change, the he-shagged, she-spat of hacking society.
This column began in the British Airways flight magazine – and I’m not knocking that. The good people at High Life gave Mr Steadman and I a full year of monthly excursions within which to impress upon its readership the psychogeographical way of proceeding, but inevitably we had to part. The editor’s pretext was a redesign, but in my heart of hearts I knew that it was one of those relationships where I was obscurely grateful to the other for having had the guts to end it.
My zest for the seemingly more adventurous forms of travel has been in decline for decades now. When I visited India in my early twenties, it took me about three months to get over the culture shock; nowadays it takes me about three months to acclimatise to a weekend in Wiltshire, a development that makes the country-house party – so beloved of the English upper-middle and upper classes – pretty much anathema to me.
I arrived in Varanasi by minibus, a stubby little eight-seater that clumped and bumped along the straight and rutted roads of Uttar Pradesh from the Nepalese border. It took three interminable and baking days – days I spent sitting opposite an Australian hippy wearing a Victorian nightdress. Having no humanity or fellow feeling whatsoever he read aloud from Shakespeare’s sonnets the whole way. Frankly, I’ll never compare anyone to a summer’s day as long as I live; not after that.
My friend and colleague Nick Papadimitriou has long coveted an oblong of woodland tucked behind some rich villas on a hilltop in north London. Nick knows about woodlands – he’s been a conservation worker; he knows about ecology – he’s written scientific reports on the subject; he knows more about the topography of London than anyone I’ve ever met, and, naturally, he also speaks Polish, having spent a couple of years teaching English literature and language to naval officers in Gdansk. All in all, Nick’s psychogeographic credentials piss on mine from the height of Angel Falls, so when he says “Jump!” I politely request: “Broad?
Sitting in a soft-stripped flat on the 21st floor of a semi-abandoned tower block in the Kensington district of Liverpool I am temporarily the highest resident on Merseyside. I can see the sunlight dapple the flanks of Snowdon nigh on 70 miles to the south. I can see the Wirral like a spatulate tongue licking the Irish Sea. I can see the Mersey itself, coursing through its trough of defunct docks. Towards Bootle, the gargantuan sails of wind turbines look like propellers powering the upside down burgh through the steely grey sky. Ranged across the mid-ground are the signature buildings of the city: the Liver Buildings with their sentinel herons; the mucoid concrete of the hospital; the dirty white stalk of the radio station with its restaurant revolving like a conjurer’s plate; and the two cathedrals, one the outhouse of the morally relativist gods, the other a split yoghurt pot oozing spiritual culture.
A frozen moment at US immigration, JFK airport, New York. My British passport is scanned, the official scrutinises the computer screen with a worried expression and then politely asks me to go into the back room. I join what look like a hundred Koreans and a miscellany of other potential personae non grata. A Frenchman is being noisily grilled by an immigration officer at a high desk. The officer looks like an ugly, acne-scarred version of Jim Carrey, the Frenchman looks preposterous: fur-trimmed jeans, a leather patchwork shoulder bag, collar-length hair. Frankly, I wouldn’t try to get in to Legoland looking like that – let alone post-9/11 America.