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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Sadness in the Little Island

In the early part of this week, W and I spent a day wandering around a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the county of Sussex in the south of the UK. The weather was hot, averaging around 32C in a completely cloudless sky. There was a wonderful quiet sultriness about everything. Birds stayed hidden most of the time in the trees and shrubs, out of the heat, only the occasional call giving their presence away. The members of a distant herd of highland cattle seemed virtually petrified on their feet. A flock of fifty or so grey lag geese plodded slowly, meticulously through a wetland, foraging in what remained of the mud. Butterflies of all colours flitted and danced through the air. Apart from them, the only other living things not apparently subdued by the heat were the hundreds of dragon flies – some of them huge – and damsel flies hovering and darting about with apparently undiminished energy.

The paths on the reserve twist and wander around over open meadow land and through wooded glades dappled with sunshine. Stopping at one viewpoint – a large wooden platform constructed on the slope of a wooded hill to give a view over miles of countryside – we talked with a man who was a volunteer worker on the reserve. He had worked there many years. He had at his side a gleaming modern scythe he used for cutting down thick grass and vegetation. He spoke with a quiet enthusiasm of turning up there at seven that morning when it was still cool with the mist lying all along the ground at little more than ankle-height; of the silence at that hour, of the low sun and long, slanting shadows; of the different birds he’d seen. The world is so beautiful at that time of the morning in such places. There is great order in it.

Coming back to London however, a city I love and have lived in for many years, a depressing reality is nowadays inescapable. Although London itself – and a number of other large cities, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted overwhelmingly in the recent shambles known as ‘the referendum’ to remain in the EU, Britain today is Brexit Britain. That is – Britain going it alone; isolationist, xenophobic Britain; a Britain which has demonstrated to the world in a few short weeks, that its long-held reputation for decency, probity, racial tolerance and solid good sense was skin-deep.

As an indirect result of that Brexit vote, we now have a new Prime Minister. She has gathered around her, a new Cabinet. And whom do we have among her list of luminaries? Well, our new Foreign Secretary is a man spoken of by other world leaders world as a buffoon and liar; another new government minister is a man whose basic honesty, a few short years ago, was tried in two very important aspects and found severely wanting in both – to the point where he was forced to resign. Neither man would be employed by any reputable employer. To cap it all, our new Prime Minister herself stated unequivocally in parliament the other day, that she would indeed, if called on to do so, press the button to unleash a nuclear missile on another sovereign state, killing a hundred thousand or more people.

Are there others out there who, along with me, think the human race, in its present form, is seriously insane?  Two thousand odd years of Western ‘civilisation’ have taught us almost nothing. We continue to behave in a way that is criminally lacking not only in morality but in the most basic intelligence. Go back to the nature reserve. Watch the birds, the butterflies, the creatures of the field, the woods, the grasses, the clouds in the sky – learn from them. They have a timeless lesson to teach. But it seems we aren’t listening. Maybe we’re just too clever.

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Letter from a little island

Tuesday June 28 2016

Dear Europe, World,

Hello. I’ve tried to stay away from Shipwreck Brexit, but the few days since the announcement last Friday that Britain had voted to leave the European Union have been among the saddest of my adult life. That this country – or at least 52% of its voters – a country that has so boasted of  its ‘values’ – its tolerance, its championing of the underdog, its magnanimity – should have opted, when the chips went down, for xenophobia, isolationism and some sugar-coated dream of a nirvana that never was – otherwise known as ‘getting our country back’ – leaves me with a deep sadness. Already the all too predictable is happening – there were reports yesterday of a 57% rise in racist/xenophobic attacks on non-Brits in the UK, including school-age young children. What have we come to? What sort of people have been lurking in the shadows of this land?

And now – and if you can’t see the connection, then you need to open your eyes a little wider – the England football team crash out of Euro 2016 in what’s being heralded as the most ignominious of all national team defeats. The Brits, you see, at whatever level and in whatever sphere, do not take to being team players. We’re divas. If we could have stayed in Europe and ordered everybody else about and told them what to do – well, that would have been pretty nice. We could have handled that. After all, we won the war. Which one? Er – the one that ended sixty years ago. When we stood alone. And which, without the Americans, the Poles, the Gurkhas and many others from other lands, we would have lost. That war. It confers on us a sort of universal entitlement.

But now – it’s looking like the illusion, the self-deception are catching up with us. The edifice is crumbling. As one commentator in the Guardian newspaper put it, ‘England has not yet come to terms with its own irrelevance’. And in my view, until it does, it will sink further and further into the quicksand. Profound lessons need to be learned. Humility would be a good one to start with.

 Yours hopefully,

 Besonian

P.S. Is anyone listening?

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They’re cutting the grass!

The grass in the little park which my flat overlooks hasn’t been cut for an unusually long time. In places it must be a metre high. Very small children running through it almost disappear, and small dogs doing the same actually do disappear, detectable only by a fast moving line of waving grass. The grasses themselves look like the surface of the sea as they wave and ripple in the wind. The delicate seed pods on their extremities nod and sway. And all over the park, among the trees, edging the pathways there have appeared carpets of daisies, buttercups, things that look like buttercups but I think are probably kingcups; bright yellow flowers that look like dandelions but aren’t because the ends of their petals are more right-angled and which are often called – I believe – ‘false dandelion’ and sometimes even, ‘hairy-cat’s-ear’! And all that takes no account of the banks of clover flowers that have appeared.

Many years ago this park formed the grounds of a school for the blind, now long gone. I find it extraordinary to think that these flowers and grasses, waving in the wind today, are the direct descendants of the grasses that waved in the wind in those far-off days. The seed develops, produces its offspring which, in turn, produces seed which then, in turn etc., etc. and will probably go on doing that until the sun burns itself out.

Way back in the mists of time, I moved with my mother and step-father into a newly-built house in what was then a small town just to the west of London. It was a little estate of about forty semi-detached houses erected on what had once been a meadow, part of the grounds of a recently demolished big country house. I spent most of my teenage years there. In the mid-eighties, after the break-up of my marriage (and coincidentally, the death of my mother) I moved back into that house with my step-father.

It had a big rear garden about thirty metres long. My step-father, who also died not long after I moved there, had many years ago given up on the vegetable garden to which he’d once been so devoted, and had turned it all over to grass – which he cut every week, come hell or high water, with a hover-mower. When he too had departed this vale of tears I decided to leave at least half that grassed area to grow naturally without mowing it or cutting it back. I liked the idea of having a miniature country field in the garden. 

I was amazed and delighted to see soon appear wild flowers and waving grasses that clearly hadn’t put their heads over the parapet in over forty years. Well – I guess they would have put their heads over had they not been so assiduously mown down before their prime by my step-father. So all that time, despite the ground having once been a vegetable garden, and despite having had a concrete path laid through it, the seeds of those grasses had survived, patiently waiting until they were called on again. And now – here they were, their colours as fresh and intense as though the last time they’d appeared had been only the season before.  

The long grasses brought lots more insects. And the insects brought more birds. I had a burgeoning nature reserve on my hands. I decided to add a pond. It was roughly circular, about half a metre deep in the centre, and perhaps a couple of metres in diameter. I constructed a little waterfall, powered by a pump fed by a cable that ran from the house. It all took a few weeks to settle down, but within a month a frog had moved in. Water boatmen joined the frog. The frog must have persuaded a member of the opposite frog sex to join him/her because before long the place was awash with tadpoles. I bought a few small fish from a garden centre. One morning, soon after that, I had to chase away a heron who was perched on the bank and staring with a fixed, predatory look into the water. And for those not familiar with the UK’s Grey Heron it’s a huge, long-legged bird with a two-metre wingspan and a beak on it like an anti-tank gun. I couldn’t compete with him. When my back was turned he soon disposed of my fish.

Life is endlessly amazing. We so take it for granted. And it’s everywhere, irrepressible. Sitting in the park the other day with W, I saw, making its way across the sleeve of my jacket, some green living thing that was so tiny it was only just visible. Then it stopped for a second, changed direction and continued on. It had made a decision – let’s go the other way. Maybe it had taken a wrong turning – or simply changed its mind. I hope it arrived at wherever it was headed.

And as I write this, though it may appear like a bit of dramatic licence on my part – it’s not – out there in the park there are rumblings of machinery starting up. Looking out the window, I see two huge, petrol driven mowing machines. They’re about to cut the grass again! I hope they leave it for as long next time – then the flowers and the waving grasses will be back. And maybe that tiny green thing as well. 

 

 

 

 

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You are You.

You are a creature not of the streets, the bright lights and concrete of the city; you are not a business opportunity, a number crunched in a computer; you are of the winds and the stars and the flowers of the field and the flowing river.

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You are You, and were here before all this, and will be after. You are of That, which is now and for ever. And your soul cries out that in this your living, you are at a distance from your true nature and from the Oneness out of which you have sprung and to which, one day, you will return.

Knowing these things, know also that all is well, and as it should be.

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