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9 November 2015

The earth is red. The children have bare feet and stare at you. Welcome to my new world

“Have you played GeoGuessr, Dad?” the eldest asked.

By Nicholas Lezard

Normally, as for all writers, I find the internet is nothing more, or less, than a tool for work. One hears of its cornucopia of distractions, but as far as we writers, who have a high and lonely destiny, are concerned, it is a library, a research tool, a way of prising open the locks of the word-hoard, and nothing more. We hear rumours of “sites” where can be found television shows, recordings of music long disappeared from our collections; even places where moving pictures of live carnal congress can be observed. Indeed, there are tales of “social media”, where people can pass idle gossip and chatter to each other. But that would be to waste whatever scant and precious time remains to us upon this globe. We have other, more significant fish to fry. Sic vive tamquam cras moriturus: live every day as if you were going to die tomorrow, as Erasmus said – or is said to have said.

You see what I mean? That’s what the internet is for. To look up stuff like that, so we can appear clever. Not for anything else.

However, things have changed a bit around here, I’m afraid to say. It happened when I had the boys staying over.

“Have you played GeoGuessr, Dad?” the eldest asked.

“No, wossat?” I replied. (It helps to communicate with teenagers if you speak their patois.)

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“Let me show you.”

And he showed me. (He had to overcome a little initial resistance on my part when I discovered it was spelled like that. I suppose, in the wake of Grindr or whatevr, “e” as a penultimate lettr in many English words is on the way out, which is something we writrs are not happy about.)

Anyway, never mind all that. What GeoGuessr does is plonk you down anywhere on Earth that has been visited by Google Street View and then you have to guess where you are. You stick an electronic pin in a world map and await your result. You can travel up and down the road you find yourself on for as long as you wish or have patience for, in the hope of seeing a sign that might give you a clue. You are awarded points according to how close you are, how canny you are about this wonderful planet we live on.

There is a snag, though. I’ll get to that, but first, let me say that I am extremely good at this game. I have, without cheating – not even a little bit – got myself to within 50 miles of the location on numerous occasions, which gets you thousands of points. I have also consoled myself, when I am a thousand miles out or so, with the knowledge that at least the place I should have picked is as far south of the equator as I am north of it. Though there was one time, which my sons witnessed, when we were confronted with pictures from what looked like Narnia in the White Witch’s reign: snow hanging off fir trees, fauns, talking beavers, the works. I stumped for Lapland but it turned out the pictures had been taken in Greece. Greece? Are they taking the mickey?

Here’s the snag. It’s that even though you will never use the internet for anything else again, not even looking at nudie pictures, you become subject to an ennui that in this case can accurately be described as global. You find yourself, all too often, not in Narnia at all but in the middle of nowhere, a road stretching to the horizon, and, if you turn round, the same. You tramp virtually along the road and see a sign that says it’s 965 kilometres from a place you have never heard of, but sounds Spanish. The earth by the side of the road is red. There is a lorry in the distance. When or if you make it to a town, it is, to say the least, rudimentary. The children have bare feet and stare at you.

And so it is borne upon you with some force that the world is, for the most part, a dump. Never has my yearning for travel taken such a battering. I forget who it was who said that travel is no good because you still find yourself there when you arrive. With GeoGuessr, you don’t even have that dubious consolation. Everywhere is poor, and the roadside cafés are questionable.

The irony is that I discover this addictive antidote to travel just as a friend who has had some luck in the film business has insisted I stay at his place in Los Angeles for a couple of weeks and write a script based loosely on these very columns. I have to be there because otherwise I won’t do it. And I have to do it because . . . do I need to explain? I have to get away before I go mad – so I can go mad somewhere else.

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe