Artillery Row

Instagram vs. Brexit reality

It’s Instagram that is turning everyone and everywhere the same, not the UN, not NAFTA, not the IMF, and certainly not the EU

It’s not often that I meet Belgians, but a few weeks ago I met one on a rooftop in downtown Buenos Aires. His name was Rudi and when I told him where I come from, he made a sudden, violent grab for my shirt collar. “I want that we should talk about your Brexit!” he howled into my earhole, causing me to quake like an aspen and spill half a glass of plum-coloured wine over his blindingly white vegan trainers.

It’s astonishing how often this sort of thing happens to me. I mean, here I am, a solid seven thousand miles south of the port of Dover, straining to blend into the shadows, disappear, and some hair-plugged hulk of Eurotrash vaults out from behind a potted cactus, manhandling me while demanding that I justify my native country’s decision in 2016 to part company with the European Union.

“What the hell do I know about Brexit?” I’m inclined to yell, smacking his grabby hand away. “Why do you think I’m hiding all the bloody way down here, at the bottom of the world?”

In reality, I’m no more living in Argentina to escape Brexit than I’m living here to flee a travelling circus, but a perma-tan from Antwerp with a suspiciously hairless chest isn’t going to know that. Besides, the hackneyed trope of fugitives in exile is an important part of South America’s identity, and who am I to blow against the Patagonian winds?

I’m usually thinking about nothing more than how to get my mitts on some more pinot noir

Problems arise when my nerve—if that’s the word—fails me, and I can’t summon the requisite energy to spin a romantic, Butch Cassidy-inspired Brexit yarn. On such occasions, I’ve taken instead to placing the back of my hand against my brow, like I’m about to swoon, and rolling my eyes with all the theatrical subtlety of a panto dame. “Oh, good Lord,” I say, in a voice Henry Higgins would have endorsed, “don’t get me started!”

As responses go, it’s utterly meaningless—started on what exactly?—but I find the combination a neat trick, somehow convincing my assailant that I magically already agree with whatever it is he or she is thinking, and that I’m smart enough to know just how dreary the whole sorry saga really is. Politics, I mean. Or life. Whatever. In reality, I’m usually thinking about nothing more than how to get my mitts on some more pinot noir.

“Seriously,” Rudi said, like the two of us were long-term lovers, “you and I, we need to have a talk. No, no,” he said, when I tried raising my perfectly reasonable objections, “I am afraid that it is non-negotiable.”

It was with a growing sense of unease that I felt his hand stray to my shoulder, before it slid suggestively down my bicep and clamped my forearm, cutting off the blood supply to my wrist. I’d only met Rudi a minute or so before, but he’d instinctively recognised that I’d try to make a lightning dash for safety. He jerked me close again and I could smell the vodka on his breath. “What I want to know,” he said in a low voice, “is: WHY ARE YOU ABANDONING US? WHY?!”

This last part he delivered with the sort of melodrama rarely seen outside of nineteenth century Italian opera. He wailed it, shrieked it, his knees weakening as he practically burst into sobs. The other guests, who were sprawled around the rooftop on rattan sofas and beanbags, turned their heads, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

“I FEEL LIKE I’VE LOST A FRIEND,” Rudi cried, playing to his audience. “NO, WORSE, A SPOUSE!”

“For god’s sake, calm down,” I said, embarrassed for him. “Try to take some deep breaths. There you go, that’s it. Feel better?”

“Yes, yes, thank you,” he said, now leaning heavily on me, like I was his crutch. “I am sorry. But it’s all so… heart-breaking, you know? You have made me very sad.”


“Well,” he said, with a wave of his hand, “your country.” This, as if we were the same thing.

It’s funny, but when you live overseas, you are forever being forced to account for the actions of your nation of origin—as if, every morning, espresso in hand, I take a seat at my desk in my secret South American lair, pick up the red telephone with its hotline to 10 Downing Street, and advise the Prime Minister what to screw up next.

When you live overseas, you are forever being forced to account for the actions of your nation of origin

It’s been happening a lot recently, on account of the coronavirus. “What about your Plague Island?” a scrawny stranger in gym gear asked me last week as I was trying to eat a toasted sandwich outside a local cafe. It was the first time I’d heard the term “Plague Island” and I stupidly requested clarification. “Your England,” the woman said, backing ever further away from my table with a revolted grimace on her face, “everybody is very sick. And now you are spreading your sickness around the world. What are you thinking?”

“Oh, you know,” I said, feeling a little defensive, “nothing new.”

It was a joke, obviously. Not a great one, but it’s not as if I personally mutated the virus in the hope of wiping out the long-suffering peoples of South America. I haven’t breathed English air for eighteen months now. If I catch Covid, it’ll be an explicitly Argentine strain, probably from the cartonero, or litter-picker, who the other day pulled down his facemask and spat on me. He didn’t mean to, exactly. He just didn’t care that I was stood at the pedestrian crossing, waiting for the lights to change, caught in the firing line of his noisily expelled phlegm.

Then there are the bats. I don’t eat them, on account of beef being so cheap here, but clouds of them do attack me on my balcony at night. During a recent storm, as I bravely fought the swirling gales, relentless lightning and lateral rain in a heroic bid to save the furniture and rescue the watering can, I felt one of them swoop down into my lockdown mullet. It’s a depressing thing that my first thought wasn’t Shit, a winged dragon in my hair! but Shit, species-crossing SARS-Cov-2 in my hair!

Back on the rooftop, I saw Rudi’s point, and I tried to reassure him that even though technically we were now divorced, that was no reason to think that our love affair was over.

He gave me a look. “You mean, we still enjoy sordid little trysts in sleazy boutique hotels? Ooh, yes, I like it! How very European!”

This hadn’t been exactly what I meant, but put his way, I too didn’t entirely loathe the sound of it.

“You and I will be like the Parisians with their mistresses,” he said, “very sophisticated. We fuck once in a while, when we feel like it, but with none of those horrible strings attached. Oh, yes, yes, I start now to understand why you voted for the Brexit! How very sexy!” He frowned soberly, tugging at his lips. “Though not very British, I don’t think. You Brits are so uptight when it comes to sex. No sex, please, and all that—hm?”

What bothers me most about Brexit is that it’s hard to think of anything especially interesting to say about it. The whole maddening subject is at once so technical and so emotional that adding my two centimes worth to any conversation always feels valueless. The technical part I don’t especially understand—or care to learn about—and the emotional part I don’t much feel. My first and only thought after the “Leave” vote in the referendum was, Shit, what about my plans to live in Sicily, like Inspector Montalbano?

“You’re so self-involved,” my friend Roland scolded me as we sat in his North London living room, watching the result come in.

And I said, “Oh, sue me. Everybody’s self-involved,” which is something I happen to believe, especially when it comes to Brexit.

Deeply held principles and ideological beliefs always happen to align perfectly with mortgage payments

Call me cynical, but it’s always seemed pretty clear to me that the folks in Britain who directly rely on the EU for work and money, who have second homes in France and Portugal, are wildly opposed to Brexit, while the folks who don’t, aren’t. It’s not rocket science, and to my way of thinking, the vast majority of political beliefs can be understood this way. “I believe I support whichever political party endorses me being crap at my pointless job!” “I believe I oppose whichever political party says I’m crap at my pointless job!” And fair enough, really. We all have bills to pay, and all of us like to be assured that yes, we really, really matter, especially when we don’t.

If the EU was funding me to write this essay, I’d insist in the starkest terms that the world simply cannot survive without the EU funding vital, ground-breaking work like mine. And while I tell myself I wouldn’t do exactly the same if Kim Jong-un was funding me to write this essay, in all truth, I cannot be one hundred per cent sure. I am, after all, beneath the compulsory virtue signalling, my own vested interest, and like most people, I’d be rationally inclined to support whichever political overlord fed my kids. Not that I have any kids. But you know, I might, one day. At which point, I’ll probably be for sale to the highest bidder, just like everyone else.

In a previous life, I got paid to work in and around the fashion industry. My bookish contemporaries used to ask in condescending voices how I could bring myself to work in such a frivolous and shallow industry, and I’d say, “Money.” I have friends who work for NGOs, and in moments of drunken candour, they say the same thing. I ask them in a condescending voice how they can bring themselves to help poor, vulnerable children gain access to clean water, and they say, “Money.”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people talk a great deal about their deeply held principles and their ideological beliefs, but I’ve also noticed that, with the rarest of exceptions, their deeply held principles and ideological beliefs always happen to align perfectly with their mortgage payments.

Which is not to say that I didn’t sympathise with Rudi, on the rooftop. Quite the opposite. I too have felt the strain of Britain’s messy separation from the EU, and I’d no desire to leave people like Rudi feeling abandoned. I’d felt somewhat abandoned myself, back in 2016, when the frivolously arrogant British government first announced the referendum date, and I’d been the only person in the United Kingdom certain that the public would vote ‘Leave’. At least, that’s how it felt at the time. Everyone was so confident the outcome would match the status quo: so confident that they didn’t even plan a “What if?” scenario, the nonchalant pricks. They fiddled while Rome burned, and I alone was bravely shouting “Fire!” inside a crowded theatre. Or something like that. When it comes to Brexit, I find the metaphors get easily mixed.

For me, the referendum was simply a golden opportunity to boot pompous politicians in the arse

For me, the Brexit vote had nothing to do with fishing rights, straight bananas, vacuum cleaners, blue stilton, tariffs in Northern Ireland, legal sovereignty, immigration, the NHS, or any of the other crap you sensibly avoid reading about. The referendum was simply a golden opportunity to boot pompous politicians in the arse. That was essentially the question posed by the plebiscite, or at least the way it was interpreted by voters: “Would you like to boot this line-up of grinning, self-serving suits in Brussels in their collective arses, or not?” Presented with such an opportunity, 51.9 per cent of the British public seized the day. In my cheap shot opinion, the outcome would have been the same in any given referendum. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?” Leave! “Should we put our political leaders in the stocks and throw rotten fruit at them, or should we behave like adults and go home?” Fruit!

One argument I often hear made against the European Union is that it is making us all the same, fashioning a bland, identikit Europe, where rich national and local cultures die, replaced by a sort of featureless, corporate globalism. My father, a Europhile in the old, non-political sense, worried aloud about this, and his was an argument for which I had a significant degree of sympathy. “When I go to France, I want to eat baguettes,” he seemed to be saying. “When I go to Italy, I want to witness furious mothers clipping their wayward sons around the back of the head. And when I meet Belgians, I want them to be like Rudi.”

It’s clear to me now, living in Argentina, that in reality the European Union does very little to water down the distinctive characteristics of its member states. If uniformity is what my father is worried about, then the EU is not the culprit. When I first moved to Buenos Aires, I was gobsmacked by a lot of what I saw, not because it was so strange, but because it was all so familiar. Man, I’d think, sat in hipster coffee shops, drinking massively overpriced bitter espressos served to me by Black Keys groupies with lumberjack beards and lumberjack shirts rolled up to show-off their sleeve tats, I should’ve moved to Shoreditch, or at least Williamsburg.

It was the same with the women. A feminist activist in Buenos Aires, I immediately noticed, was indistinguishable from a feminist activist in Seattle, or Tel Aviv. The green hair, the severe micro fringe, the septum bolt, and of course the abundant tattoos, wherever you dared to look. These weren’t Argentine trends—far from it. It was Instagram that was turning everyone and everywhere the same, not the UN, not NAFTA, not the IMF, and certainly not the EU. Without me particularly noticing, the soft power of social media had thrown open our borders, regardless of government laws, and now we all wanted to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time—and to some extent, we really could be.

What bothers me most about Brexit is that it’s hard to think of anything interesting to say about it

Aspirational narcissism, I’ve since heard it called. Your local, family-run parilla serves traditional, unfussy slabs of Argentine bife. But in Dubai, there’s a famous restaurant frequented by footballers and influencers that serves bife sprinkled in gold dust. So, why the hell should you, who of course deserves the best, be satisfied with your humble little neighbourhood parilla with its delicious juicy cuts of wildly inexpensive bife? And speaking of meat markets… my single friends in Buenos Aires never stop complaining to me about the dating scene, and their complaints are exactly the same as the complaints I hear from my friends in London, in Madrid, and everywhere else. No one is satisfied with anyone anymore, they all tell me, and no hook-up is ever good enough. It’s a global market now, so why should you, who of course deserves the best, settle for the prettiest or richest or smartest or nicest guy or girl in town when somewhere out there, within your digital reach, is the prettiest or richest or smartest or nicest guy or girl in the world?

I puzzled over all of this as I sat alone outside a favourite café last week. It was an oppressively hot summer’s day, and I was sipping strawberry lemonade, watching a middle-aged woman swing her narrow, Lycra-clad hips back and forth in front of me. She’d had a lot of work done, this woman, and all of it looked expensive. Her eyes had been sculpted to resemble an Egyptian cat-god, her lips were quixotically plump and pouty, and her great, braless breasts jutted up towards the perfectly blue cloudless sky.

At the table next to mine, her husband slumped under the shade of an umbrella, a fat, pungent cigar wedged in his mouth. In contrast to his wife, he was badly out of shape. His indulged belly teetered over his belt, stretching the fabric of his robin’s egg polo shirt, while his face looked like one of his connected business competitors had smashed it with a wrecking ball. He clasped his wife’s smartphone in both hands and was filming her as she strutted senselessly back and forth, floating her arms about at her sides like she was expecting to take off. Every ten seconds or so, she’d come to an abrupt halt on her tiptoes, scurry over towards him, snatch the phone from his clutches, and playback the video, peering fixedly at the screen through eyes she couldn’t close. Then in a loud voice which echoed around the square, she’d curse his woeful directorial skills.

“No!” she’d yell. “No! No! No! I can look better than that! Come on, you can make me look better than that!”

I sat in my chair, two metres away, with my cool glass of fresh pink lemonade, admiring the skilful handiwork of my adoptive city’s premier cosmetic surgeons, thinking, Lady, hasn’t the man done enough on that front already? And I wondered how messy it would get if these two ever chose to get divorced, and how much it would cost them both.

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