Value

‘The concept of “making money,”’ Sedartis postulates gravely—and wonders is it largely, in character, in origin even, American, although it has now so widely, so almost universally, it appears, so comprehensively at any rate, on our little planet, been adopted—‘is not only flawed,’ (all concepts are flawed, he points out: it is inherent in human thinking that it cannot be flawless), ‘but fundamentally, principally wrong.’

I am glad to hear this, though I can’t be certain entirely why.

‘Nobody makes money, even the National Bank or the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England, or any bank anywhere in the world does not “make” money, and nor does any business, nor does any person, nor does any entity ever really “make” money, unless you are thinking of the actual physical process of printing notes or minting coins, but that, as we know, is not “making money” either, that is merely manufacturing its representation; in fact, nobody “makes money,” ever.’

I’m inclined to agree, and instinctively it makes sense to me what Sedartis is thinking, though I haven’t thought it through myself, and I wonder if Sedartis really has, or if he’s just doing so now on the hop, because he finds himself once again sitting next to me on a train.

I like the way Sedartis takes his seat next to me, mostly on trains, occasionally on a bench by a lakeside, rarely though, if ever, on planes, and never so far that I am aware of on a bus, or indeed in a cab.

‘Money is not “made,” it is simply invented and agreed upon in a compact between people, and then moved from one place to another, either physically (as notes and coins or cheques or other pieces of paper or some such material as may be deemed in this compact practical and acceptable) or virtually (as data), and no matter which way this happens, it is always symbolic: money is nothing other than an abstraction of “value,” and that in itself makes it inherently problematic because how, pray, do you define “value” and, more to the point, how do you keep sight of your values when the abstraction of value, money, becomes so prominent in your culture that you perceive it as a “value” of and in itself?’

I have no immediate answer to this. Sedartis is not expecting me to:

‘And so, not for moral or political or ethical reasons, though possibly for these also, but first and foremost for logical reasons, any economy that is predicated on the idea of “making money,” and any culture that embraces this idea as of value of and in itself, is not only flawed (as any human economy always will be), but fundamentally, principally wrong.

‘Whereas the moment we stop thinking of “making money,” and start thinking instead of “creating value,” for which, in one form or another, money may (or may not) serve as an instrument, as a lubricant, so to speak, as a convenient communication tool of quantifiable entities, such, as, and where they exist, no less and certainly no more, as soon as we do this, we can begin to aspire to wish to become able to consider ourselves an advanced society.’

I like it when Sedartis uses the first person plural as he thinks to me. It makes me feel we’re in this together, somehow, though somehow I’m almost certain we’re not; or rather, we most likely are, but not at the level, and not in the way, that is obvious, but in a deeper, more meaningful, more universal sense; and in that sense almost certainly we absolutely are in this together. Are we not one?…

‘Creating value,’ Sedartis expounds, ‘is no narrow concept, it applies, of course, but not only, to making things and inventing technology and imagining art, and it equally applies to providing a service, to accomplishing a task, to building a place, or exploring a thought, in such a way that it is of some value to someone somewhere sometime, even if that value cannot necessarily at the point of its inception be recognised or defined or possibly even imagined.’

That makes sense to me and strikes me as almost stating the obvious, just a bit. Is it?

‘Thus, being a good waiter is creating value much in the way that being a good cleaner is creating value, as being a good musician is creating value, as designing a good app is creating value, as singing and recording a good song is creating value.’

Who can decide, I wonder—who can determine—whether something is ‘good’?

‘Nobody can decide or determine, of course, what is “good,” at least not in the simple, undifferentiated terms we lazily espouse. Yes, you can agree on “good practice,” or define standards, but is a waiter who is slow and a little clumsy but extremely attentive and friendly and charming and perhaps a little flirtatious—just enough to send an exquisite tingle down your spine each time he tops up your glass of Prosecco—any less good a waiter than one who is super efficient but essentially dead behind the eyes and just does what he has accepted as his lot or his duty for the time being? Who can say what good writing is? Or good art. Or good music. Or good anything. Nobody can, it’s almost entirely a question of taste and the prevailing consensus: the current culture.

‘But what you can say, because you know when you see it and when you come across it and when you experience it—all of which is the same, I’m only emphasising the point, perhaps unnecessarily—is whether somebody does what they’re doing to the best of their ability, and whether they seek to make that ability in the longer term greater, or whether what they do is perfunctory, or indeed—and that is by some margin the worst “motivation” anyone could think of—they are only doing it to “make money.”’

I think along, and as far as I can, I sense I concur.

‘Ask not, therefore, how you can “make money,” ask how you can create value. Expect not to be valued by money, expect that the value you create is honoured.’

I’m about to interject an inconsequential and certainly not fully formed but broadly approving thought of mine own but Sedartis is not yet done:

‘Honouring value is not a narrow concept either: value can be honoured, also, but not only, in terms of money; it can be honoured in appreciation; in kind, in gratitude, in a return gesture or service, in goods, in opportunity, in experience.’

Certainly it can. That, too, though, I reckon, is hardly new…

‘It is not, of course, new. It only is sometimes—too often—forgotten. Because it means by necessity that if you are doing something that does not create value but diminishes it—for example producing and selling shoddy “goods” that make people angry because they’re not good and not fit for purpose, or taking advantage of somebody’s situation and appropriating, quite apart from their money, more of their time, their mind, their emotion than you deserve, in return for giving them less than they need, or providing any type of “service” that does not live up to its name, let alone its promise—then you have to stop doing so immediately: you’re not “making money,” you’re taking away value under false pretences or, perhaps innocently, feeding your incompetence off their gullibility. Either way, rather than creating value and enriching the world, you deceive yourself into believing that you can enrich yourself as you destroy value and diminish the world. You unbalance the universe. And the universe, in the long term, will not be unbalanced.’

We are nearly at our destination, I forget what it is. Sedartis seems much better now, his thoughts thus afloat, thus released, thus engendered. He inwardly smiles.


< Theory       {The Silk Road} >


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Theory

Sedartis sits and thinks for me, slowly: ‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy.’

Where did you get your name from? I wonder. I don’t ask; I know it will become apparent. He composes himself. He has sageness about him. He reads my mind, listens to it, more like; feels it.

‘I went for a wander,’ he thinks back to me, ‘along a little lake. Little compared to the big lakes where I come from.’ Where do you come from, I long to know; he stays tuned to my thoughts and replies, without words, ‘the other worlds are many, while the same worlds are few. Of course you cannot know where I am from, even though you do.’ I am content with this, for the time being, and so he continues:

‘I do not know whether there are any conspiracies, or whether there are not, and if there are, who is within them, and who is without. There may be some; there may be many. There may be none. But let me posit that there are none: let me imagine that what looks like people consciously, actively coming together to conspire is in fact no more, and no less, than a culture.’

A culture, I think, is a conspiracy.

‘Exactly. Let me posit that the conspiracy is no more—and certainly no less, which is more grave—than a culture. A culture is a conspiracy. It could be benign, it could be malicious, it is most likely something in-between; it may have, at the outset, no obvious value attached to it: but consider’—Sedartis is now thinking harder—‘the good, the bad, and the ugly: are they truly, are they in themselves, are they actually good, bad, or ugly?’

What of Mephisto, I think, less insistent than he does, is he not “ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Böse will, und stets das Gute schafft.”

‘Exactly.’ Sedartis understands me perfectly: he wills me to think the thought further; penetrate it deeper. I struggle. I get so easily distracted these days… ‘Consider people who do terrible things: murder children. Shoot boys and men. Rape women, girls, and boys and men. Devise gas chambers. Throw youths off buildings.’

My heart feels a hollow pounding: I don’t want to consider people who do terrible things; can’t we consider friendly people, people who may yet be friends, though perhaps they have not met? Are we to consider the worst that people do? Why? Sedartis thinks yes, now we must.

‘Consider people who do terrible things for some reason or other. Consider how in every single way they are exactly the same as you, or your neighbour, or your friend Jason, except in what they are doing at this particular time. Why do you find it so hard not to think of the other as other? Because it is exactly the same as you. The thought of it is horrendous, frightening. Of course it is true and you have to, you have to concede, though you don’t want to, that you could be that person, you too could be doing these things, you too are them as much as they are you, you are not separate, you own their horrendousness, and they own your love, and that’s what’s so hard not to be destroyed by: the worst thing that a human being is capable of any human being is capable of, including you; and it overshadows, for a period, in our eyes, the realisation, the hope, the belief, the truth—is it not a truth? say it is the truth—that this self-same man, that identical woman, the person who is doing the worst thing imaginable, is in the very same vein also capable of the noblest deed any human being has ever accomplished. The paradox. The infuriating, numbing, devastating realisation that the man who crushes the skull of a newborn under his boot is the same as the man who lays down his life so a stranger may live. It is not your nature to be one or the other, it is only and only your culture.’

But we are not victims.

‘No, you are not victims, not of your culture, you are the makers of your culture; that is the call: to stand up, to be tall, to accede to the duty of generating a signal, of being a voice in the wilderness, of saying: “No. Not in my name.” Of saying, “no, not in my name,” when terrible acts are being committed; and of being first to hold up your hand and your head and say: “I am here, count me in,” when noble deeds are done, difficult though they be. That is the choice: the choice is not between being born good or bad or potent or weak or ill or well or noble or savage, the choice is simply the culture you want to create.’

Sedartis falls silent. The thinking has quite exhausted him. I want him to stay by my side. His presence feels comforting now and serene. So much have I longed for his presence, comforting, sage and serene.

‘Let me posit that there is no conspiracy,’ Sedartis thinks slowly, in the way only he can, without saying the words: ‘let me assert that instead there is culture. And that the culture there is is the world as it is when we’re in it, and that being in it we are part of and therefore responsible for that culture.

‘And when we give up our hope and say: “that’s just the way it is,” then we have already lost, we have failed, we have yielded in resignation to the bad things that happen, and when we throw up our hands in despair and say: “that is them, they are like this that do these things, they are other,” then we have not understood who we are, not grasped that we are what we see happening around us, that we own every last bit of cruelty, just as we exult every grand act of mercy; and if we say: “they are powerful that have made the world such as it is, but I am weak,” then we give away what power we have, and we empower those that we scorn for wielding their power against us; and if we think, they are evil that hold this power, we forget that we would have this power if we hadn’t so feebly, so faintly, so frivolously surrendered it.

‘What is power, and what is it for: it is the potency to shape the world; and what shapes the world that we happen to live in: culture. Let me posit that there is no conspiracy, there are not categories of people; that there are not those who are good and those who are bad and those who are ugly, nor are there those who are different (nor are they, for that matter, indifferent: they are simply non-different: the same); there is your human conscience, and there is the culture that you create in the world you inhabit.’

What world do you inhabit, I wonder, and think to myself, I could do with an ice cream now.

‘So could I.’


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Practice

Sedartis looks at me sadly. ‘How is it,’ he demands to know, ‘that this man is asking for money?’ I shrug, a little impatient:

‘He doesn’t have any and needs some to buy food or alcohol or cigarettes or drugs or whatever it happens to be that he wants.’

‘Yes I can see that.’

I fear this conversation is going to go some obvious place about social injustice and the unfair distribution of wealth and the absence of life chances for someone like this man, who isn’t young, and who isn’t old, and who isn’t distinct in any particular way, other than perhaps that at this moment he has just asked me for money—for change, more precisely, which is materially less, yet symbolically so much more—and that I have given him some (money only, not meaningful change), partly because I for once happened to have some on me, partly because I felt unease at walking past a human being in need of some charity without offering it in the presence of Sedartis, and partly because I forever and always look at people about me who are skidding on the edge of existence and think the ‘there, but for the grace of god, go I’ thought, not because I have a faith or a belief or a god I can readily defer to, but because ‘god’ to me seems as good a shorthand for ‘chance,’ or ‘luck,’ or ‘circumstance,’ or ‘the way the universe has momentarily aligned itself,’ or any combination of these, as any.

‘What I need to understand,’ I get from Sedartis, ‘is how do you make it so in your world that there are those who have money and keep it and then have to—reluctantly, more often than willingly—give it away, or bestow it, and there are those who do not have it, or at any rate not enough, and they have to beg for it, or steal it, or at the very least work for it; and how do you make it so in your world that purely having money makes that money increase, whereas purely not having money makes obtaining any much harder: surely, but surely it would be much better the other way round: what is money other than a “promise to pay,” but how do you pay, if not in deed?

‘You cannot pay a person in money: that is just another promise, but the longer that promise is held out and not kept, the weaker it surely becomes, not through ill will, necessarily, but through the depreciation of any hold that a thing or a person can have over anything or anyone else over time.

‘So if today I promise to marry you tomorrow, and I marry you not tomorrow, and I marry you not for another day and another, and then not for a week and a month and a year and another year and another; and then five, maybe ten years pass: my promise to marry you becomes weaker and weaker, surely, not because by necessity my intention has diminished—my intention may still be lasting and good—but think of the potential lovers I meet, think of the glances I exchange; think of the buses in front of which I cross the street, think of the tall trees I walk under: the chances, the probability, of my being able to marry you ever decreases, not through wrongdoing, but because the bond between me and the words I have spoken and the thing or the person that they pertain to gets intermingled with bonds that pertain to other persons or objects, through other words that I speak or things that I do.’

Sedartis is approaching the nub of his question, I sense:

‘So how is it that in your world you decree that money should increase over time: how most extraordinarily ludicrous an idea, which makes people do with money the opposite of what money is supposed to be for: money is there to circulate as an ever-weaving pattern of promises that are quickly exchanged and kept and renewed and newly directed. You give me a loaf of bread, I give you this promise that I or someone else will soon give you something in exchange for your bread that is worth as much as your bread, no less and no more, for example some honey. This can only be good and proper if the promise is called in soon. If you then stash away this promise because you know that in doing so it will become greater, then you withdraw from circulation all incentive for somebody else to garner the honey that goes with your bread. See you not this is so? Money surely, but surely should only ever decline in value over time, so that nobody has any reason to hold on to any of it, but everybody has every reason to constantly keep it in circulation, because that is all it is good for, nothing more, nothing less.’

I have no answer to this—except a tentative ‘inflation?’ which is easily deflected—but I try to reason, as best I can: ‘Well, people, they like to save up for a rainy day, or for their retirement, say: if you didn’t pay interest on savings, or if you had no return on investments, then people, when they are old, would have no pensions and no savings and would end up on the street, like our friendly young beggar just then.’

‘He was not friendly, or young.’

I was trying to adopt a whimsical disposition. With Sedartis, this fails.

‘Why would old people not have a pension, and why would they need savings: are you not, as a community, capable of looking after your old and your sick and your needy? Have you not developed the means to gather from each to their ability a contribution to the welfare of all?’

‘We have; we have a complex system of benefits and pensions and tax credits, and then we have private pensions and health insurance and life insurance and obviously also investments and savings.’

‘Do away with investments and savings,’ implores Sedartis: ‘they are what distorts your presence today, they are the root of your immense poverty.’

‘We are not that poor, as a country, for example, or as a society, we do rather well; although there are of course inequalities…’

‘You are destitute. You are deprived because you lose, by and by, all sense of worth and all sense of purpose and all sense of care and all sense of freedom and all sense of joy and all sense of being.’

‘But we are highly evolved, and connected; we have ever increasing levels of literacy and make rapid progress in science and medicine, and although our population is growing, we still cater for larger proportions of it better each year: we do not fare badly, though granted, perfect we’re not.’

‘Oh yes,’ Sedartis concedes at last: ‘you have the potential to be magnificent.’ I am glad to hear him now thus, but: ‘but you waste way too much of it way too much of the time. You do not realise your potential.’


< Projection       Theory >


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Projection

Sedartis sets no store by opinion:

‘If you want to know the giants, the masters, the geniuses of your age, look whom the critics disparage. You’ll find no surer guide to greatness than them: they dance on the ashes of the works their alleged wit has burnt to the ground, congratulating themselves on their deconstruction, but from these ashes rise the phoenices that will soar for future generations to emulate, admire, and study. Trust me, on this, for I know.’

What we project onto our heroes. How we prize them; how we invest in them. How we see our own inadequacies fade into nothing and our misdemeanours absolved: those sporting legends in their own lifetime, their career years elevated to seasons of gods. Who are we then, without them. Why would we not heap fortunes upon them for the privilege of watching them chasing a ball? Why would we not conspire to see in one artist’s work all our selves reflected, while in another’s we discern nothing and resent being confronted with our own shadows, to the point of hatred? We are so simple, when it comes to our primaeval responses and, yes, so complex; so light, so effervescent, so intricate, so delicate and delicious, and then again at a stroke so basic. So instinctive, so brute.

I let Sedartis understand that I don’t know what he’s talking about.

‘No matter,’ he shrugs, in his calm, forever reassuring and slightly annoying because also so-sure-of-himself manner, ‘it will all make sense.’

‘It will?’

‘It will. Liberate yourself from the urge to understand, within your head, immediately. That may seem, to you, sophisticated: it is not. Not at the level you will want to attain. Allow yourself to be subsumed into the thing around, within and through you. You will begin to sense your truths and untruths and their inbetweens in a whole different way.’

Sedartis to me seems like the philosopher from a different world who in his spare time drives a minicab in the towns I happen to visit. There is no other explanation. I would book him through an app if I had to, but he sits next to me, whenever I’m on a train. Sometimes—rarely—when I’m on a bench or at a cafe, waiting for a friend. Never when I’m having a drink. Is Sedartis only of the unadulterated mind?

What we want to see in ourselves we see in others, and vice versa. We need these icons, these exponents, these majestic figures, even though we don’t know who they are. And so we make them. Of whomsoever offers themselves up. We sacrifice them to our hunger for existence: build them up, tear them down, abuse them on the way, pretend to love them, really love them. Want to be them; glad not to be them, but feeling as if we were, because we know, deep down, their invention is monstrous. How strange, and, yes, how elated.

I separate myself from my intention and begin to float. That feels lovely. Nary a care in the world. Compos mentis and completely lost. In that agreeable way. Sedartis smiles at me and takes his leave, for the time being only. I know he’ll be back and tell me more. I just know.


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Counsel

‘Enlightenment,’ proposes Sedartis, with troubled eyes turned toward mine, ‘does not keep, on its own, forever, sweet, like honey in a jar; it needs nurture, refreshing; the darkness around it is strong, and it forever encroaches. Without care, the flame will go out: the flame of enlightenment requires our hearts, indeed, our soul; you live in a soulless world where your science and your money have made you sceptical, cynical.

‘You do not believe in a soul, because your science has not found a measure or word for it yet. Be not so hostile, my friend’—this is the first time Sedartis addresses me ‘friend’—‘to things you can’t see, you can’t measure, you can’t understand in your mind: that would be arrogance supreme. Generations before you thought not things would ever be possible that to you are now commonplace, why would you assume that today you know everything?

‘Allow time to infuse you with humility and passion in equal measure. And feed, forever, with these the light, because, if you do not, it will go out; but if you do,’ his eyes now newly aflame, ‘the light conquers darkness for certain, always, just as it must.’


< The Sedartis Effect       Projection >


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The Sedartis Effect

Sedartis is full of little insights which are borderline annoying. They are annoying, because they are obvious, and it’s possible only to be borderline annoyed with them, because they are obviously true. They are the kind of insights that make you wonder: why has nobody pointed this out to me in, say, year ten or eleven.

Since joining me, unbidden, uninvited, and taking up quasi-permanent residence by my side, he has sprung them on me at irregular intervals, which, on account of their irregularity, at least retain a mild but welcome element of surprise.

‘The reason time passes faster as you get older, relentlessly, is very simple,’ he informs me. I did not ask him about this, I was just looking out of the window of yet another moving train, this time to Dorset.

‘I imagine it is,’ I say, having for some time felt I had my own plausible theory about this.

‘At the age of one, one year is a hundred percent of your lifetime. That makes it really long. So long that you can’t fathom the sheer vastness of its duration: it is all of your life so far.’

I’m not sure that I can fathom it now, but for different reasons…

‘By the age of ten, that same year is now only a tenth of your lifetime. In absolute terms, it may be as long as any other year, but you don’t experience life in absolute terms, you experience life in relative terms, always: relative entirely to you. Your year is now just ten percent of your body of experience. By the age of fifty, one year has shrunk to a fiftieth of your lifetime: if somebody offered you a fiftieth part of a pie you’d barely think it worth eating. But it’s still a year, and it’s still a slice of your life. And aged a hundred, your year now hardly registers at all. You may well lose track and forget how old you are: was it a hundred and two or a hundred and three years ago now that you were born? Does it matter?’

‘This all makes perfect sense to me,’ I say to Sedartis, which it does, but: ‘why are you telling me? Now?’

‘Because you’re obviously at that point in your life when your perception of time reaches a tipping point: your life expectancy nowadays isn’t quite, but may soon be, about one hundred years, so around now, as you’re halfway through that more-or-less century of yours, your feeling of losing your grip on time will accelerate, and because you’re now no longer moving away from your birth, but towards your death, you will find this more and more disconcerting.’

‘What, more disconcerting than I find it already?’

‘Of course. But think not for one moment that you’d be happier if you lived longer.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Because: if you were to get to the point, say, where you habitually had an active conscious lifespan of ten thousand years, it would not feel that much longer than it does now: as you’d get towards the last millennium, each year would only be between one nine and one ten thousandth of our lifetime. That is about the same as three days for you are today. You would not experience a hundred times more than you do today, you would simply stretch your living out over a period a hundred times longer. And nor should that surprise you: when your life expectancy was thirty years or so, people did not generally think, our lives are so short; they simply did all their living inside those thirty years. No-one would argue that Alexander the Great, for example, or Mozart, didn’t really get that much living done in the thirty-odd years of their lives.’

‘No,’ I say, thinking, a tad wistfully, of Tom Lehrer, ‘that, I’m sure, no-one could argue.’

‘It is, in a not entirely obvious way, not unlike the Doppler Effect: the sound waves coming towards you are compressed so they appear to your ears higher than they do once the source of the sound has passed: now the waves are getting stretched, and so the pitch seems to drop. Of course, time is no wave, and the comparison is clumsy at best and misleading at worst, but if nothing else it’s another example of how your reality is shaped entirely by your experience of it. You may, if you like, refer to the phenomenon of a relative experience of time as the Sedartis Effect, I shan’t hold it against you if you do.’


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Autumn

‘It is very nice, this very nice weather we’re having:’ I’m trying to work out what Sedartis thinks about simple things.

Sedartis agrees, but: ‘it is also a burden.’

‘How is it a burden?’ I ask him, though I feel I know the answer already:

‘It is also a burden because it insists on our enjoyment of it. If it were raining, or grey and drizzly, or at the very least cloudy and disagreeably damp, we would both be happiest sitting indoors and doing some work on the computer, or listening to music, or having a nap, or watching a documentary we had recorded months ago but never found the time to catch up with, or play the guitar and sing an old song, quite badly. We would be deeply content and get some of the things done that we have been meaning to do for a while. Instead, we have to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. Or go for a walk. We go for long walks anyway, there is nothing wrong with long walks, quite the opposite, we love our long walks come rain or come shine; but with this very nice weather entangled comes an inescapable obligation: it would be a terrible waste of a beautiful day now to be locked inside and not happy.’

‘It’s good to be happy, though, is it not?’

‘It’s good to be happy,’ Sedartis concurs. Yet again, I sense there’s a but… ‘but the effort of being happy can become wearisome. Sometimes it is really more agreeable to just be moderately gruntled and steep in the comfortable, undemanding moist misery that comes with being English in England. The stridency of happiness can be quite overbearing.’ 

I know he’s right, though I will him to be wrong, and I close my eyes and inhale the neither warm nor cold air. The city is in constant, fuel-driven agitation: cars and lorries and aeroplanes and buses and the ambulances. Always, always the ambulances.

I like the sun on my skin and the heat that expands under my cheekbones. I enjoy enjoying the weather, burdensome though it be.

A big fat cloud starts wandering across the sun, and immediately the air feels much cooler, but not quite yet chilly. I open my eyes and see it will pass ere long.

I like autumn, though it signify decay. This year, I’ve chosen to stay in London rather than go away. I like London, I love London. It troubles me, right at the moment. There is too much cold money breezing in that doesn’t do anything other than stifle the cracks that before let the light shine through; it deadens the life that makes London unruly, infuriating, endearing; but still I love it, because I know this siege, too, will be withstood; like the small cloud across my sun this very moment, it will pass, and ere long. I have an old-fashioned, daily rejuvenated love affair with ten million people, with more history than I know how to make sense of, and a generous, rebellious, untamed and untameable heart.

I sense there is a change in the air, and I know the change will be profound.

Sedartis nods in agreement; and with some slight tingle of anticipation, I close my eyes again and take it all in while it lasts, while it lasts…


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