For my first break in over a year – publishing a book and moving to the FT kept me busy throughout 2012 – I chose to eschew adventurous travel and to go, instead, on a great big stupid holiday, lying on a hammock in an Antiguan beach resort slurping a moreish concoction named a Coconut Crush. Intellectual stimulation was limited to an Alan Hollinghurst novel and – only because my companion insisted on watching it – President Obama’s State of the Union address. Otherwise, it was a week of thoughtless, sybaritic recuperation. There is a lot to be said for it.
Back in London for a day before heading to the second leg of my holiday, I decide to view some flats for rent in Hampstead. Confounding the usual hassle of finding a place to live, I take the first one I see – which is only minutes from my current flat. My fixation with this part of town began almost a decade ago when I, a south Londoner by upbringing, was shown its astonishing houses, its higgledy-piggledy back streets and its wild, brooding heath by a friend who grew up locally. London might be unique in its sheer variety of neighbourhoods. In most cities, where you live reveals your budget; here, it also says something of your lifestyle, sensibilities, even values.
Without exception, everyone I know who lives in the gritty, modish East End did not grow up in the city; missing out on the urban experience as youngsters has left them all the keener to get its full measure as adults. By contrast, Hampstead’s residents – including more Americans than I have ever encountered in one place outside America – come here for the almost rural solemnity.
To Cape Town for the rest of my break. The FT’s Alec Russell, an old South Africa hand, recently wrote in this column of the country’s “embarrassment and angst” regarding Oscar Pistorius, the acclaimed athlete who faces trial for shooting his girlfriend. His fall is, for some, symbolic of South Africa’s come-down since the giddy 1990s, when apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was elected president. Graft and political dysfunction remain stubborn blights, and the proximity of desperate townships to Cape Town’s plushest parts, such as the Stellenbosch winelands, never loses its ability to shock. It is glib for a tourist to tell the locals to stop worrying and enjoy the mountains, the coast, the Cabernet Sauvignon, and all the other marvels of their absurdly attractive land. I would suggest a different consolation to them. South Africa really feels like a normal country, a paid-up part of the world in a way it wasn’t just a generation ago.
This year’s Academy Award for best documentary went to Searching for Sugar Man, which tells the story of an obscure American folk musician who struggled in his own country but, without his knowledge, captivated South Africans. It is, more than anything, a film about the sheer isolation of the country until 1990. My travelling partner, who visited in the late 1990s, says it was still feeling its way into the global swirl of culture and ideas even then.
Now, it is unmistakably a part of it all. Trends and tastes are up to the minute. Attracted by the mere one-hour time difference, technology firms in London have software engineers based here. When east European countries came in from the cold after the fall of communism, they had the help of the European Union. South Africa has had to make a similar journey more or less on its own.
Britain is characterised by a kind of grim stability at the moment. The economy is stagnant, no political party can be confident of winning the next election outright, and the public’s settled belief seems to be that things should be better but could be much worse.
It is invigorating, therefore, to drop in on a country where all is change. I accept an invitation to a conference on soft power in foreign policy. Venue: São Paulo. Within minutes of leaving the airport, I am immersed in the organised chaos of South America’s biggest city, the mind-bending inequality (soaring over the slums are helicopters used by monied Brazilians to dodge the traffic) and ethnic diversity worthy of a United Colors of Benetton campaign.
I attend a speech by the culture minister, Marta Suplicy, who is a scriptwriter’s idea of a Brazilian politician. This 68-year-old former sex therapist has blindingly blonde hair, a much younger boyfriend, and the kind of swaying, sensual walk that is probably outlawed in several American states. She is also educated to the eyeballs and holds her audience with effortless authority for 45 minutes.
This playful but serious attitude is the essence of modern Brazil. Its elites are sometimes frustrated that only the fun seems to be noticed by the rest of the world. How many people know that Embraer is the world’s third-largest aircraft manufacturer, I am asked, or that Brazil is investing in a vast modernisation of its military?
This is not just chest-beating pride talking. In the bohemian Vila Madalena district, I have lunch with Lourenço Bustani, a local entrepreneur who worries that the barrage of fun heading in Brazil’s direction in the coming years – the World Cup, the Olympic Games – could distract from the country’s grievous problems in public health, education and infrastructure. It occurs to me for the first time that the world’s flattery might not actually be very good for Brazil.
Still, I plan to return for that World Cup. If I do, I will venture beyond the big cities (my comfort zone) to investigate the unfathomable heartland. My favourite film, Central Station (1998), is one of the few attempts in popular culture to depict the Brazilian interior, with all its hard-scrabble desolation and Pentecostal fervour. The woman next to me on the flight, a native of São Paulo, warns me that I will have to learn some Portuguese. Apparently, people will speak the language to me because I “look very Brazilian”.
Janan Ganesh is the FT’s UK political columnist