Virtual Reality (Genuine)


W and I have just returned from a few days at a Caravan Club campsite a few miles outside London, less than an hour’s drive from home. Due largely to various family and health reasons – along with a major operation of mine,which I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog – it’s the first time in two years that we’ve done one of those trips – the sort of thing we used to do regularly and which took us to various parts of the country.

But now, as we seem to have got our lives back in at least some sort of order, we thought it time to get into the camper van again and give ourselves a break. It was wonderful! To awake in the morning to the sound of the wind in the trees; to eat breakfast watching two blackbirds, male and female, pecking around in the grass only metres from us; to sip a whisky as you watch the sun, seen through a dappling curtain of leaves, slowly reddening as it dips to the horizon, throwing hugely elongated shadows along the grass – all that is a reconnection with life – real life. You feel in it your gut and in your soul. And you come away recharged, reinvigorated – and settled.

On our second day, we made a trip to a nature reserve we’d visited a number of times in the past. There is a big lake there – ‘big’ as far as UK lakes go, anyway! – which is used as a base by a sailing club. The premises of this club seem to be little more than a large prefabricated building in which there are showers, changing rooms – and a little cafe which is open to the public – in this case, us – W and myself.

It turned out to be one of those quite unexpected and fascinating peeps into other people’s worlds. In a rather bleak, white-painted little room overlooking the lake, we sat at an aluminium table eating excellent bacon rolls – cooked for us almost as a favour (they didn’t officially sell food to the public on weekdays) by a very helpful young man who seemed to wield some sort of authority in the kitchen. While we ate, we watched the comings and goings of whole tribes of young people, male, female and no doubt anything in between, aged from about ten to early twenties as they came in from sailing on the lake, soaking wet (it was raining) with their instructors. Despite their recent exertions, they were neither boisterous nor particularly excitable; instead, they all exuded that sort of quietly contained excitement that comes not so much from having done something hugely ‘Wow!’ dramatic as having done something that has touched their inner selves.

The only other members of the public in the cafe were a woman working on a laptop while she waited for her young sailor son, and a much older woman, who sat at a table in a corner on the far side of an empty cold drinks cabinet. With her were two little girls (not part of the sailing groups) of whom she took no notice whatever unless one of other of them made some remark about her loud enough for her to hear, or she caught a glimpse of the faces they pulled at her. And even then, she looked up and barked at them only for the few seconds she could spare to be parted from her smartphone. That’s what had her in thrall. Fingers swiping, poking, prodding, she was consumed by it. For the whole time we were there – about forty-five minutes – she hardly looked up from it.

It was a bizarre exhibition. And a bit unsettling. But although it was maybe a bit extreme, I guess it’s not uncommon. A short while ago, on the way from my own flat to my son’s via the London Overground, eight of the eleven people – ages ranging I’d guess from twenties to sixties – sitting in close proximity to me were likewise buried in their smartphones. One or two were no doubt doing something relatively important – like checking emails. But as most of the others had heads bent (some with ear-buds in ears), fingers a-picking and a-swiping for virtually the entire twenty minutes I was on the train, I doubt they were doing anything more important than playing games, reading on Facebook of someone’s trouble opening the cornflakes packet that morning, or checking a selfie on Instagram.

And outside the windows of the train there was a world happening. Clouds going by, trees, hedges, houses, people. Wake up! You’ve never seen this day before. And it won’t come back, either.

In a programme on the radio the other day, the interviewer asked this man – in his late twenties/early thirties – how often in a day he checked his smartphone. ‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘Don’t really know. A lot. Definitely a lot.’ The interviewer then asked him when would normally be the first time in a day that he would check it. ‘Soon as I’m awake.’ replied the man. ‘It’s the first thing I do.’ Then added, ‘And probably the last thing at night too.’

So his whole day is enclosed, book-ended by the contents of his smartphone. Ouch. Consisting of what? – casual observations of friends, acquaintances, opinions of opinion-formers, journalists, politicians, pornographers, mopings of the tired, the bored, the lovelorn, titillaters, freaks and weirdos, the sad and lonely, detailed cinema listings, train and bus times, the prices of the latest heart-rate monitors and every bizarre shade and level in between. And each minuscule detail of his browsing, along with every byte of his own personal input to this cornucopia of mostly drivel will be checked, traced, sifted through, analysed and manipulated by mammoth commercial corporations who do so, not out of philanthropy, but out of the simple desire to make money out of him. Which they do with startling efficiency. Ouch!

What does a daily dose of all that do to the psyche of the smartphone junkie, man or woman? Where has their real world gone? The disconnect between that real world which holds in its embrace their own natural selves and the specious role into which they are being so subtly moulded can only add more stress to all the other work, financial and domestic stresses the modern world – God help us – produces. And to our shame, we’re even allowing our children and young people to drift into a similar neverland where their own natural young instincts are commandeered and subverted by those same multinational mammoths. If we are not careful – and we show little sign of it – real life for those young people – the life to which they aspire – will come to be thought of as existing at some further end of a virtual signal. And maybe many think that way even now.

And now we’re creating robots. Humanoid robots. Ones who can book us into a hotel; ones who will show us to our rooms; ones who can diagnose our minor ailments; ones who can reason; ones we can discuss with; ones we can flirt and have sex with.

This is borderline insanity. The sign of a society taking leave of its senses and abandoning its self-respect. The barbarians are quietly massing at the gates.

And outside the window, the day goes on, the birds sing, ants scurry, the sap rises in the plants and the trees, the seasons come and they go, the clouds drift by and if you’re lucky, the sun shines. As darkness falls, W and I draw the curtains over the windows, unroll the sleeping bags and retire. There may come the last piping call of a bird; a gentle stirring of the leaves on the surrounding trees; even the weary chatter of the magpie who’s been strutting around all day; and if we’re lucky, there could be a parting of the clouds to reveal, visible through the small skylight in the roof, a pallid moon to light us to sleep.

That’s real.









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A Summer Morning’s Entertainment

I haven’t blogged in a while now. Depression, which has dogged my life since my early forties, has been having a go at me in recent weeks. So much so that with the three hours every morning that I dedicate to writing, I’ve been too tired mentally to write anything beyond that. But today – life feels about right; I feel almost normal. I know only too well I might have to retract what I’m about to say, but the clouds seem to have broken. I don’t imagine for one moment that they’ve broken never to obscure the sun again – but now is now and that’s enough. I’ve done my three hours on the book today and it feels good to still have the energy to want to turn my attention now to the blog.

 I‘ve written elsewhere in this blog that I live in a flat – or apartment – that overlooks a very pretty park in South London. I get up any time between six and seven in the morning, and first thing I do – or almost the first – is look out of the kitchen window. The overnight long haul flights are turning into their final approach to Heathrow – British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Emirates, Virgin etc., etc. And I often think back to my time in the film industry and that awful feeling after a twelve or more hour flight from somewhere in the world and you haven’t really slept (I never could) and maybe you had a glass too many of something or other the night before and you’re unwashed and unshaven and feeling pretty inhuman. And when you get down on the ground you’re going to have to stand and watch those interminable baggage carousels going round and back, and round and back while anticipating the business of getting home through a London whose morning rush hour is just winding itself up. I wouldn’t want to be doing it again. Even so, when I was doing it on a regular basis, I sort of revelled in it – I was part of the ‘in’ crowd. At least, that’s how it appeared – and it seemed important then.

However – that’s not really what I was going to say. What I was going to say was, that as I look out of the kitchen window first thing in the morning, that which has delighted me almost every day now since the 7th of May when they first appeared, is a group of up to about twenty swifts which have obviously nested close by, and whose aerobatics over the park have been wonderful to watch.

They are amazing birds. Just over six and a half inches or 16.5 centimetres, they are basically dark brown all over, but looking black against the sky – which is the only way most of us are ever going to see them. For they spend 99% of their lives on the wing, sleeping and even copulating in the air. They’re often mistaken for swallows, but in fact they’re not even of the same family. They have long, swept back wings, and their silhouette against the sky is like a sickle. They fly at enormous speeds, with periods of steady flight alternating with sudden very fast flickerings of the wings and almost instantaneous changes of direction. They’ve been encountered at altitudes of at least 10,000 feet. They are consummate acrobats. They’ll dive, sweeping from a hundred feet or more above the ground, right down sometimes to not much above head height. They can often be seen flying at colossal speed – up to seventy miles an hour – low around the housetops, in and out, skimming the chimney pots in screaming, screeching bands of a dozen or more – just for the very joy, it seems, of being alive. In their search for food for their young and for themselves, they are reputed to fly up to 500 miles in a day – that’s right, every day. Like – London to Inverness! As I watch them from my window, every few minutes, in the background will be a gargantuan Airbus 380 or Boeing Dreamliner coming in – and however technically impressive those mechanical flying machines are, they are still, by comparison with the swift, little more than befuddled, lumbering dinosaurs.

 The swifts come to northern Europe from Southern Africa every year. Whereas most summer migrants to our shores stay here about six months, swifts are away a lot earlier, usually in August, having arrived only in late April or May. Although there are reckoned to be around 85,000 pairs nesting in the UK, sadly and like so many birds on the British list, they appear to be declining.

They’ve entertained me – and hopefully a lot of others in their extraordinary airborne treks – since early May, and I guess they’ll be on their way back in the next few weeks to southern Africa. How do they do that? How does any migrant bird do it? No-one really knows – either how they know the route or how they survive the journey. And how, when they come back the following year, so very many of them return to exactly the same street or farm building – even nest – where they spent the previous summer. No-one knows. And I’m glad they don’t.

I dread the scientific know-all who pops up on TV and with a smile of triumph on his or her face, breezily announces that another ‘mystery of nature’ has been solved. If we’re not careful, before long we’ll have ‘solved’ life itself. And if we think we’re in trouble now – which we are – it’s nothing to what that’ll be like.









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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.


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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