Do what you like!

A few weeks ago, I was eating with a friend in my favourite Indian restaurant in Crystal Palace, here in South London. We got talking to the couple at the next table – both, I’d guess, in their early thirties. The conversation eventually got around – as it so often does – to what the four of us did for a living. When it came to me and I told the couple I’d worked as a freelance writer/director in the film industry, there were the usual reactions. Their faces lit up. “That must have been really interesting!” “Bet you worked in some fascinating places.” “What famous people did you work with?” etc., etc. And the final question, “How on earth did you manage to get into that?”

I told them I’d known from the age of about sixteen that making films, along with writing, was what I wanted to do. One Saturday afternoon, I’d seen at a local cinema, an extraordinary French film, now a classic of world cinema, ‘Le Salaire de La Peur’ – ‘The Wages of Fear.’ It stunned me and left me with a really burning desire to work in that business.

The couple looked at me, and the man said, rather wistfully, “So you really did spend your working life doing what you wanted to do?” And he looked at me almost like I was a being from some gentler, nicer world. “That must have felt wonderful.”

It did. It still does. OK, I was very lucky – whatever that means – that I had the feelings inside me that connected with that film that afternoon in the cinema. I was also very determined. I wrote letters to various people in the film industry telling them I was prepared to work for nothing and sweep floors if they’d give me a job! I don’t think they were impressed – nothing came my way from that. It was some years later when I was at university that I managed to get a job at a small documentary company in London, simply on the basis of an interview.

I loved my time in the business. I worked all over the world. I worked with some great film crews – many of them really unusual people. I worked with many celebrities. I won international awards for both writing and directing. As the man said, it felt wonderful. But why, I got to wondering, was my experience so rare?

Among young people, there is a huge variety of latent talent. Yet the vast majority will end up doing jobs and pursuing careers, in which they have little interest beyond that of paying the mortgage. Is that what we bring them up for? Is that all we can offer them? Their untapped individual talents could be benefitting society, and in the process giving each of them a sense of fulfilment and genuine purpose. That in itself would avoid much of the tension, stress and anxiety so many adults live with now on a day-to-day basis.

Our education system takes little serious account of the innate and latent talent out there. The original meaning of ‘education’ is not to sit young people down in a room five hours a day and cajole them into ingesting a whole series of pre-digested opinions about this, that and the other, and then take a few examinations at the end of it – with the prime purpose of getting a job. That’s not education. At best it’s cultural conditioning; at the worst, cultural brain-washing.

I used to say to my children when they were young, ‘I don’t mind what you do when you grow up, as long as whatever you do is what you really, really want to do. Be tramps if you like; as long as you’re happy tramps.’ In every individual, there is some innate talent – however modest. And the original meaning of education was to find out what that talent is and to bring it out and nurture it – ‘educere’ – Latin for ‘to lead out’, ‘to bring forth.’

Yes, I know – the implementation of such a system would be quite beyond the scope, the vision and the courage of today’s politicians – it would mean pretty well overturning society as we now know it. But society is not doing too well at the moment, is it? I think it would benefit from a bit of overturning. It’s beginning to look and feel like it’s been taken over by madmen, and run by them in the interests of other madmen.

However, some instinct tells me that we are already not too far from a seismic upheaval; that the present turmoil is like the crust above a fault line in the earth being tossed aside prior to an earthquake. A new way of thinking and of living is, I believe, beginning to force itself up through this present crumbling fabric like a chick breaking out of the egg. I really hope so. Then perhaps a time will come  – however far hence – when our young people are taken seriously and the huge fund of genuine talent that at present goes largely to waste in our societies will be used to the benefit of us all. 

 

The following is a meditation on the above subject. It’s from the book of meditations I’m working on – albeit on a sporadic basis.

“Few of us are educated in the true meaning of the word. Nor do we truly educate our children. For if we would do that we would be concerned not only to teach them the essential skills of literacy and numeracy, but to draw out from them and encourage to flower in this world, that which is in each of them by nature.

Blocked entrance in wallFor every one of us is a piece of the jigsaw and has his or her unique contribution to make. That way, they would grow toward wholeness and balance. As it is, we pay scant regard to their inner selves, imposing on them from without a system of essentially short-term, superficial disciplines whose primary purpose is to prepare them for future employment and the illusion of ‘security’. Thus confined to the shallows and distanced from their own hearts, they grow out of true. What they most profoundly are is pushed aside to bide its time in a locked room. And there it will work mischief. For be in no doubt, God denied becomes the Devil.

As we do to them, so it was done to us. Do you wonder there is resentment and disillusionment among the young?”

(If any teacher reading this is affronted, please accept my apologies – you may be totally dedicated and doing a magnificent job. The fact remains however that you’re still working within a basically two hundred year old system designed primarily to condition for employment and to ‘fit in’, rather than to elicit talent, and nurture the soul).

 

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Guns in Westminster

So here in the UK we have experienced another terrorist attack. Right alongside what is pleased to call itself the Mother of Parliaments. The first thing I want to say about that is that for any Muslim who may read this, for any native of another country living here who reads this – you are welcome here. I’m very happy to have you here. You and your different languages, your different dress, your different foods which our restaurants serve now on a daily basis all brighten up and broaden the collective mind of our society. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m slightly humbled – and flattered – that you should think enough of this country and this society to want to make a life for yourself and your family here, or just to be resident here for a period of time. And you should know that there are millions of others like me whose voices you perhaps don’t hear often enough.

The harsh and hectoring, anti-humanitarian, anti-tolerance rants of all the usual suspects – whom I don’t need to name – are, at a time like this, in full spate as you would expect, sourness, meanness and negativity being their natural milieu. Do not however, be disheartened – there are a lot more of us than there are of them. And in fact, don’t be too harsh on them, for they are dinosaurs and the sun is setting on their day. I have a sense that the many vile things that have been unleashed across the mainly Western World by such as them in the last few months will turn out to be, in the long run, their own nemesis – such anathema to the vast majority that they will generate the push-back against their own selves. The signs, in fact, are already appearing.

The only way this desperately troubled race of ours has any chance of reaching the turn of the current century is if we all bury our differences, turn our swords into ploughshares and sort out our severe and mounting problems together, as one. At which point I have to mention Brexit because I think it’s a disaster and a tragedy; it goes against everything the world now so desperately needs.

As I’ve said in this blog before, I live in South London in a lovely, green area called Crystal Palace. It’s a cosmopolitan, friendly place. There’s a vast mix of black people, white people, brown ones – and pretty-well every colour there is. We live together. And we get on together. On a number of occasions, on my way back home from the shops just up the hill – a seven minute walk at the most – I’ve counted the number of languages I hear from passers-by. The last count was six. French, German, Hindi, Cantonese, some sort of Eastern European, and Spanish. For me, that’s wonderful. And representative of the only way there’ll ever be real peace in our world.

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What Shall I do Today?

World’s in a bit of a mess at the moment, isn’t it? Wars and conflict. Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK. The ice caps melting, species becoming extinct, pollution, internet trolling, fake news, stabbings, car bombs. If there are living beings on any one of those seven new planets the astronomical community has recently been getting so excited about, and if those beings can see us and what we’re up to, you wouldn’t be surprised, would you, if they’d taken one look at us and switched their lights off so we can’t see them any more – that way hopefully ensuring we’ll give up any thought of visiting.

What is it with us? We seem incapable of coming together and sorting out our differences without resorting – or threatening to resort – to violence in some form or other. If you were an inter-galactic psychologist and the human race came in for assessment, you’d mark them down as in urgent need of therapy and as needing to be kept off the streets while undergoing that therapy.

Something’s gone wrong. Or maybe it was never right in the first place. Go back as far as you like – in Europe at least – until the mists of time become impenetrable and you won’t come across any green and pleasant land where peace and sanity ruled. It seems we were always like this. So what’s the point? What’s the point of filling a planet with a race of beings who, as soon as they’re here, set about brawling, fighting and killing each other?

And yet, throughout the centuries,  still small voices there have always been. They haven’t been much listened to, generally speaking. They’ve often been decapitated or even disembowelled for their trouble – or crucified, for that matter. But a lot of what they’ve said or written has somehow survived. Which may be seen by optimists as a good sign; that somewhere in the breast of opportunist, aggressive, warring man – (usually male, I’m sorry to say) – there beats a gentle heart. I don’t know though. I can’t help thinking that if we go on like this, we’re going to blow ourselves up or – more likely – so delay or even disregard the warning signs that are everywhere around us now, that the planet becomes uninhabitable and we all simply die off. Like so many of the birds and animals, wild flowers that once flourished around us. If an inter-galactic ecologist were to come round to the house of the human race and see how we’re treating things, they’d have everything immediately taken away from us as unfit to own pets, flowers, animals – in fact any living thing.

And yet, with all that, we’re capable of such lasting beauty, such creativity, such selflessness. Julian of Norwich, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Goethe, Dire Straits, Katharine Hepburn, Caravaggio, Martin Luther King, Ghandi – the list goes on. Do their works come from a compartment in the human mind entirely separate from and unconnected to the one that produces nerve gas, nuclear missiles – the one that discriminates and tortures? Or does each of us have within us the capacity for both? And if that’s the case, is it simply a question of choice – which way we go? Like – what shall I do today – paint the Mona Lisa or create a device that will blow the legs off people that tread on it?

No. There’s more to it than that. And I think we need to find out pretty soon what it is – and then act on it. Otherwise nobody on this planet, including babies yet unborn, might see the end of this century. Then those people on those far-away planets can safely switch their lights back on again.

 

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Poppies are Go

Tomorrow is Armistice Day. The Queen of England and the United Kingdom – Elizabeth II – will lay a wreath on the monument in central London dedicated to all the British and Commonwealth men and women who lost their lives in two world wars and subsequent conflicts. Politicians will genuflect. Bands will play big music, regiments of soldiers will parade. It will all be on radio and TV. Millions of us will pin a poppy to our lapel or blouse. And we will all remember.

What? What will we be remembering? I’m going to say something which is likely to be unpopular. But I think that in the time of Brexit and Donald Trump it needs saying more than ever. What exactly will we all be remembering? And having remembered, then what?

Will we be remembering the men and women of the enemy armed forces – the Germans, the Italians etc. – who were also persuaded and coerced by dictators and politicians into giving up their lives and limbs – ‘in the service of their country’? Their families too were ripped asunder, their children too were rendered fatherless. Will we be remembering those awful lines of Wilfred Owen, the man from Shropshire, who served in the First World War, who won the Military Cross and who was killed in Northern France one week before the Armistice was signed?

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

And if there are those who don’t know the English for the ‘old lie’ – it’s a quote from the Greek poet Horace – “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” I don’t think that needs further comment.

Were it possible to ask any of those who were put through the hell of that and subsequent wars, how best should later generations remember them, I suspect the answer would be, “Make sure, for God’s sake, you don’t ever do this again.”

Then look at us now. The anger, the cruelty, the xenophobia and the hate crimes are on the rise in Europe and the US. A resurgence of fascism, once regarded as a ludicrous proposition, is no longer ludicrous. As a race we seem to have forgotten. Except at this time in November when we remember. Anyone can. Pin a poppy on your jacket. Say a prayer on Armistice Day. It takes no time and no effort. And can be forgotten till next November.

Doing something about our own individual selves however, so that we don’t forget, so that we really do remember and learn the lesson those men and women who sacrificed their lives would have us learn is not easy. But if we want to survive as a species – and we’ve no reason to think we’re indispensable to the universe – that is what we have to do.

FINALLY – one of my Meditations which I include in this blog from time to time –

“The problems of our world stem not so much from our failure to act as though we – its peoples – are one, as from our failure to recognize that we – its peoples – are one.

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We have, for millennia, accorded life-or-death importance to superficial differences which are of no more significance in the wider sweep of things than the mosquito on the back of the elephant. Thus we resist one of the most profound and uplifting truths of ourselves as human beings.

The time has come to put an end to this. Look into your brother’s eye, your sister’s eye and see there yourself.”

 

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Eating out in Europe

A few weeks ago, my daughter Jackie, who has lived in central France now for ten years, was in London for a few days with her partner, Raul. W and I took them to an excellent Italian restaurant here in Crystal Palace, called Lorenzo’s.

Most of the staff at Lorenzo’s are – not surprisingly – Italian. We had a drink first, then ordered the meal. Now Raul, although having lived in France for most of his adult life, is Portuguese. So between the five of us – the four of us plus the waiter who came to take our order – we had four languages. When Jackie, W and I are with Raul, we can lapse quite easily into reasonable French if the French word comes more readily to mind than the English one. So there was an occasional smattering of two languages going on before the waiter joined us.

Raul, unused to and unfamiliar with Italian food, asked the waiter – in English – what a couple of items were on the menu. The waiter was clearly keen to try out his minuscule bit of French on Raul; Raul, responded with his only couple of words of Italian and then explained what that item was in Portuguese. Within a few seconds a bitty, garbled conversation between all four of us was going on in all four languages. We ended up laughing. And I think it was W who exclaimed at that moment of communal laughter, “We’re all European!”

It brought us to a stop. Yes, we are all European. It had been a wonderful moment, when nationality had been irrelevant, sidelined quite naturally, by our common humanity. At moments like that, you realize, if you hadn’t already done so, that the things that unite all of us, wherever we come from in the world, spring naturally out of that common humanity; and that the things that divide us are almost always the product of inward-looking and fear. 

These are unsettling times in England. I feel it is no longer my country; I am ashamed of it and of our government. Were I a lot younger, I would be seriously considering what options I might have for moving permanently to another European country – France, almost certainly. Xenophobia and racism, latent for many years in England, despite the image we’ve managed to off-load onto the world till now, have been widely let loose and authenticated by Brexit. Such attitudes are the outcome of fear; the actions they engender – like all actions performed out of fear – are ill-directed, counter-productive and often cruel and intolerant.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog that during my time as a film director, I worked in many other parts of the world. And I recall being asked a number of times – especially when working in parts of India and North Africa, if I were American. Hearing English being spoken, many people there seemed to naturally assume that’s where you’re from. And I would reply with some pride, “No, I’m not American. I’m English.” Were I to be asked that question in those circumstances today, I think I’d simply reply, “No.” And leave it at that.

There is a lot of wringing of hands and wishful thinking going on about how the world can get out of the spiral of violence and suspicion that blights it now – of which Brexit is partly symbolic. But all the looking for yet another ‘system’ will get us nowhere. The answer, long term though it may be, is under our nose. The five of us around that table in Lorenzo’s that day can’t be the only few people ever to have felt the sense of freedom, union and release that comes from seeing our own selves and others as crucial and our nationality as a sideshow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s all in the mind. And it hurts!

During most of my adult life, I have suffered, to one extent or another, from depression – worse at some times than at others. As far as work is concerned, for one period of just over a year, it prevented my doing any at all. At many other times it got severely in the way. Compared with most other such sufferers however, I was in a privileged position. As a film director who wrote the vast majority of my own stuff, I exercised a large amount of control over what I did and when I did it. Had I worked in an office, it would have been a very different story. 

Quite early on in the progress of my depression, in order to try and ease the pain and distress it was causing, I set about trying to figure out where it had come from, what was its source. Surely I wasn’t born with it. And if I weren’t, then I must somehow have acquired it in the years since. I went back in my own mind – time and again – into the events of my past, particularly my childhood, as far back as I could remember, looking for clues. As for my very early childhood – that part that predates my ability to remember any of it – I spoke with relatives who were around at that time and who could recall my circumstances. In this way, I started to build up a picture. I got quite a shock. A lot of it was pretty unpleasant. Nevertheless, it seemed clear that the unpleasant stuff was what lay at the root of it and had therefore to be acknowledged and confronted.

The other thing I did, over a period of about ten years, was to jot down in a notebook I carried with me all the time, thoughts and observations about my life and about life in general. It helped. Externalizing my disturbed feelings and then noting down observations that emerged from them had the beneficial effect of starting to disconnect me from them. The realization that I was neither those feelings nor the pain they brought on gave a wonderful glimpse of freedom and well-being. Those glimpses, though extremely short, were intensely significant – and with time they grew longer. And longer. Today, although I still get the occasional attack, it will hardly ever last more than a day. And even then will seldom be enough to put me off carrying on with my normal everyday life. I can talk openly to W about my feelings and how they seem now like the distant feelings of an entity that exists no longer  – i.e. those of myself as a very young child. 

Life, as we all discover at some point, is not easy. Looking back over my notes a while back, I thought maybe they could help others. Depression, after all, is now one of the commonest and most misunderstood causes of distress and serious unhappiness in western society. Accordingly, I’ve distilled what seems to be their essence and I’m going to present them here in this blog on an occasional basis and in a form which I hope expresses them in a succinct, straightforward way. I sincerely hope they help and give reassurance to any who read them and who may themselves be struggling with the anxieties, lack of self-esteem and debilitating negativity which scarred my life for so long and may be scarring theirs.

Here is the first –

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‘Why can’t things stay as they are?’ you say. Why does everything have to change?

Look out of the window. Everything everywhere is in movement. Leaves twist in the wind, birds fly, ants scurry, the grass grows, sap rises within the trees, the clouds cross the skies above our heads, the earth moves round the sun. Even the particles within the atoms which constitute the buttons of your coat and which make up the flesh on your bones, spin endlessly around each other. And you and I grow older.  Nothing is as it was even a fraction of a second ago. On a different time-scale we would see before our eyes the rivers gouge out canyons in the land, the mountains turn to dust, stars come to birth and go out. Nothing is as it was, nor as it will be. All is change: life itself is change.

Shutting the door on change, you shut the door on life.

Is that how you want it?

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The Last Burst of Summer

In this south eastern corner of the UK we’re enjoying a burst of late summer sunshine. The little park below my flat is looking really beautiful, especially in the late afternoon and early evening. The sun then is low in the sky, so it shines through the trees, sending great elongated shadows of people, dogs, and of the trees themselves out across the grass which is everywhere brown with lack of rain. People walking through these shadows pass through them like actors through spotlights on a stage, the sun lighting first one side of their face and body, then into virtual darkness they go, to emerge again into full sun on the other side of the shadow. 

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All the trees and bushes are at the peak of their maturity with so many subtly different shades of green. And here and there, you can detect the tell-tale signs of the autumn on whose doorstep we stand – especially with the horse-chestnut trees. Their bright green, spherical, spiky fruits are almost ready to fall to the ground. As are their leaves, a few of which are already beginning to die back and turn brown. Not long now before they’re falling, eventually creating that thick carpet of dead leaves through which your feet swish, like through puddles, as you walk.

I have a lasting affection for autumn. It’s a time of year that makes for introspection. It’s like the world, the skies, the trees, the plants all have done what they came here to do. And now they recognize it’s time to fall back, rest, and rejuvenate. In other words – to die. For death is not the end. Sure, it’s the end of a cycle. But all things, without exception, are cyclical. And that which has gone, has gone only to come back again when the wheel has turned full circle.

We do death a sad disservice in the West. We fear it and hesitate to talk openly about it. Loved ones so often don’t die, they merely ‘pass on’. Yet death is integral to our life. Without it, there would be no life; without life there would be no death; without black no white, without white no black. And indeed, as we are born, so we begin the process of dying. That we will one day end is our one and only certainty. Or at least, that some part of us will end. For I don’t think that’s the whole story.

For most of my childhood, I lived in Bedford, a small, market town eighty kilometres or so north of London. I remember one morning when I was probably about eleven, walking on my own along by the river there – the River Ouse – and looking into its waters and thinking an odd thought. “When I die,” I thought to myself, “I really don’t care if they throw my body in the river. Because my body isn’t me.” And I walked on, feeling pleased with myself, though for reasons I wasn’t clear about!

But it seems clear to me now – I am not my body. Apart from anything else, if I were my body, would I refer to it like it’s a possession and call it ‘mine’. Hardly. There is the universal, unspoken presumption of an ‘owner’. So my body will die – that’s clear. But I can make no such assertion about the owner, the ‘I’  – who has to exist in all of us. And who is, maybe, the very same in all of us. I think if we can discover who or what that ‘I’ is we will come across a great secret – perhaps the greatest of all secrets.

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