Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.

Where to next for humans? I pushed Sapiens onto the shelf, and picked up Homo Deus. Harari opens with this incredible fact, which becomes less incredible the more you read. As with One River, I have definitely felt this books impact more after finishing it rather than while immersed, and looking up the extracts I noted for this blog post, it sent thoughts spinning off in every direction.

Now that mankind is slowly reining in it’s timeless enemies of famine, plague and war, which are now mostly human inflicted rather than forgone conclusions, what will the species set it’s not inconsiderable intelligence and drive to next?

This is the central theme running through Homo Deus, and like Sapiens, Harari delivers it in his plain rolling prose, including contemporary references and thought/ire provoking arguments. I can’t help but feeling his clinical dismissal of god and religion are a taunt that he is begging to be picked up, although I am in full agreement with him.

The Pursuit of happiness is one area that Sapiens could look into. There are biological factors to why happiness is fleeting, could these be re-engineered, or done away with? One way is to constantly deliver the happiness hit (in one way the capitalist approach, keep buying to get that hit, is the hit becoming less or getting dull? By different! Buy Bigger! Keep Buying!). Harari juxtaposes this with Buddhism, and it’s objective to move us beyond all craving, so that our happiness is not dependent on our urges and desires.

What will determine these topics and areas. Although there are a number of elements from Sapiens that are repeated here, Homo Deus expands on them to look forward. The Humanist approach to life, and it’s desire to eliminate death and live forever, combined with the biological assumption that life is run by algorithms, even for biological creatures, not just invented technology. However this invented technology could become more and more intelligent, creating and running even more intelligent algorithms, and then what need for humans? If you’ve read my review for Sapiens, now would be a good time for Neo to appear. He’s not here though.

We are suddenly showing unprecedented interest in the fate of so-called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one. If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further it’s own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite it’s superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs.

My brother has tried to get me to watch endless programs about animals in the food chain, all of which I’ve had zero interest in. Reading Homo Deus however is the closest I have come to considering becoming a vegetarian. But that still seems wrong. Animals do kill other animals to eat, and there is not reason why humans should not also do this, particularly as humans also have the ability (and should use it) to not just eat the animal, but use every part of it for other uses. What humans should not be doing, is caging, modifying, selectively breeding other animals purely for the purpose of eating. The problem with that however, is that there would not be enough ‘wild’ animals to sustain the human population. Nature has it’s own solution to that problem, but humans are a step ahead of nature, and manipulate her to sustain it’s ever expanding population. Even this point is only part of the point Harari was making in the paragraph above, but it’s an example of the thoughts bouncing around your head while you read and long after you close the cover.

Suppose you were given a choice between the following two vacation packages:
Stone Age package: On day one we will hike for ten hours in a pristine forest, setting camp for the night in a clearing by a river. On day two we will canoe down the river for ten hours, camping on the shores of a small lake. On day three we will learn from the native people how to fish in the lake and how to find mushrooms in the nearby woods.

Modern proletarian package: On day on we will work for ten hours in a polluted textile factory, passing the night in a cramped apartment block. On day two we will work for ten hours as cashiers in the local department store, going back to sleep in the same apartment block. On day three we will learn from the the native people how to open a bank account and fill out mortgage forms.
Which package would you choose?

This paragraph, and the final one of the post, for me, are the most important in both of Harari’s books, and demonstrate exactly what a wonderful achievement these books are in realising what you think is actually just a perception. While we have undoubtedly achieved great things, overcome every obstacle to become the most advanced species on the planet, when you take a slightly different look at our progress, it seems less clear that we have actually advanced at all.

Harari points out at the end that although steps have been taken down some of the routes he has explained, they are only possibilities of what Sapiens may achieve in the future. Yet while reading about dataism in the book I listened to the Guardian Science Weekly podcast with Stephen Pinker which touched on certain points. This was the same time that the Cambridge Analytica story broke, and how it used harvested data from Facebook to influence people in the US election. It suddenly seems that the time of using algorithms to not only predict, but influence human behaviour has already arrived, whether the AI algorithms will be beneficial remains to be seen, better get that happiness hit in now.

We can’t play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?

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Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power – but so did chimpanzees, baboons and elephants. There was nothing special about humans.

We are already in the Matrix, Harari says it right there on page 35. Except we’re not batteries for an external system, we’ve just created a reality for ourselves that is completely fictional, ‘imagined realities’. They are not lies, as Harari points out, monkeys can lie, but they are common beliefs that all humans’ share that make them a reality.  A very powerful reality. While things like Lions, Trees and Rivers are real physical entities, Limited Liability Companies, Nations, Money, are all inventions of the human imagination.

I found Sapiens absolutely fascinating, Harari slices through fiction, spin, history and belief with a sharp blade, revealing the truth about our species with a bold, unflinching glare. I learnt what a Diprotodon was, I learnt that humans were domesticated by wheat, not the other way round. Foragers were more successful with a wider diet, if they could not find something, there would be something else to eat instead. The Agricultural Revolution separated us from nature and gave us the future. We ate less variety of food, and were susceptible to droughts and bad harvests.

Giving a brief history from the first peoples to what do we want as a species today, Sapiens tackles some big subjects but Harari keeps the tone light and informative and littered with contemporary cultural references. }
But in the beginning I felt I was learning about myself as much as Sapiens.
When I reviewed One River by Wade Davis I was moaning about the many technical terms for the fauna he was describing and how I initially found them a barrier. At the beginning of Sapiens I found it too easy to read and understand, and the statements he made and references were merely there to shock or provoke a reaction. It triggered a thought process in my head, that I had become a snob, that a book had to be slightly difficult to read to be worthwhile or valid. I argued against myself that this was an important subject and that writing it in a way to make it accessible to as many people as possible was exactly how it should be written. Then I thought, despite the copious amount of references sign posted, that somehow this was like fake news, the very manner of Harari’s writing sometimes felt like he was portraying everything as fact, as this is the way it is, but in fact it was just his interpretation.

As I disappeared further into the book though my thinking changed (or perhaps I stopped thinking). It is precisely Harari’s style that makes the impact by the end. At one point he explains how the state and the free market has replaced the family and community in an individuals life, carefully explaining how this happened and it’s evolution. It’s not sensationalised, a tabloid scream out from the page, despite being explained over several pages, it feels considered and understated. Harari doesn’t judge, the theory is put down on the page for you to read and think about.

Religion is a good example of this. Sapiens flatly rejects any notion of God, in any format or number. It looks into the evolution of religion and the roles it has played, and again, Harari follows his arguments through to interesting conclusions.

So, monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

When I finished thinking, or indeed started thinking again, my conclusion was that the human race can be compared to Voldemort, We have done great things. Terrible, yes, but great things. Sapiens explains how as a species we have exponentially confounded all previous notions of the speed and impact of revolution. How we are becoming a global hegemony based on our collective belief in things that do not exist, yet we have absolute faith in. Aha! God you say. Money Harari says, Nations. These have replaced God.

The fact that people all over the world know what these are and for the most part feel strongly about one or both of them, and values them over actual physical objects such as the natural world, shows how far we are inside our the matrix.

Where is Neo?

Perhaps in Homo Deus. I’ll let you know.

If we combine the mass extinction in Australia and America, and add the smaller-scale extinctions that took place as Homo Sapiens spread over Afro-Asia – such as the extinctions that occurred when ancient foragers settled remote islands such as Cuba, the inevitable conclusion is that the first wave of Sapiens colonisation was one of the biggest and swiftest ecological disasters to befall the animal kingdom. Hardest hit were the large furry creatures. At the time of the Cognitive Revolution, the planet was home to about 200 genera of large terrestrial mammals weighing over fifty kilograms. At the time of the Agricultural Revolution, only about a hundred remained. Homo Sapiens drove to extinction about half of the planets big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing or iron tools.

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Flood of Fire – Amitav Ghosh

The family had grown accustomed to the money he sent home; and in different ways they had all come to relish the prestige of being closely related to a man who wore the uniform of a power that was increasingly feared and respected. What was more, by the time his leave drew to an end Kesri could tell that his family – all except Deeti – were tiring of having him at home. He understood that the gap left by his departure from home had been filled by the continuing flow of their lives; his return, although welcome at the start, had now begun to disrupt the new currents.

I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, so I finally picked it up and started reading.
Then I put it down.
And argued with myself.
I can’t remember everyone and everything from the first two books. The Burnhams, Zachary Reid, Ah Neel, Baboo Nob Kissin! I remember the names, but not what had happened.
As the threads start, Zachary Reid back at the Burnhams, Shireen learning about the death of her husband and the return of Zadig Bey, Ah Neel’s new life with the Chinese, and Kesri Singh’s life in the army, the names washed over me and away again. I knew them, Bhyro Singh, he was killed on the Ibis apparently, think I remember that. I looked back at my reviews. My review for Sea of Poppies was pitiful, River of Smoke was a bit better, but not enough to fill in the gaps.

Should I carry on reading, or go back and re-read the other two first?

In the end I continued, I had sunk into enough of Ghosh’s delicious prose to not want to resurface.

Once again as the story shifts between China and the Sub-continent Ghosh paints a lush picture with words, half of which make no sense to me but I still love reading. From Army life for Kesri, to Shireen’s entrance to widowhood and Ah Neel’s life in secretive China, revealed in journal entries, as if, like the British, we are not allowed to venture into Chinese territory.

Here comes a bit of a spoiler. What I don’t remember from the first books is the sense of inevitability that seemed to be in Flood of Fire. While reminiscing the back story of Captain Mee, I wondered if his passionate love was in fact Mrs Burnham. While reminiscing later she reveals it was, and their paths are then set to meet in China. While the outcome could go any which way, I still don’t remember the signposts being so clear in the previous two. But that is a minor niggle. As I progressed still more names came out of the mist, Serang Ali, Freddie Lee, Kuar that were all interrelated, all entwined to the Ibis, a constant yet silent character in the background of the whole series.

All paths lead to Canton and Hong Kong in this final instalment. As the Chinese try to end their addiction to opium the English merchants are whining about their loss of money and sure enough England brings it’s navy to the fore to force the Chinese to resume trading. The characters on the sub continent are slowly drawn across as the English start offensive and the characters are again intertwined. At one point Paulette and Freddie recognise Kuar during a military display, which was a nice touch, as the characters flow around one another but do not always connect. At various points the temptation of opium is always there, and by this time you are hoping the characters stay away from it, knowing the impact it has on the lives of those who taste it.

It’s difficult to comment much on the story, given how I have forgotten the previous two books. I didn’t like Zachary by the end of the book, although I imagine at that time there were many like him. His transformation throughout the series is perhaps most truthful, which is a shame, he feels no remorse for the outcome  of his actions, and seemingly comes out of it much richer. Of course, Baboo Nob Kissin was always a joy to read, although his role in this was much reduced. Kesri seems the moral mast of the novel, whether the honest soldier from the subcontinent was a deliberate juxtaposition to the greed driven english merchants or just how the character developed only Ghosh can answer.

It is Ghosh’s attention to detail, vibrant description of protocol and every day life that makes this series a geniune pleasure to read, if he narrated a hundred years like this you would live and enjoy every minute. For my own part, as much as I loved this, I know I would of enjoyed it even more if I had re-read Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke first, but the fact that I still couldn’t put it down after starting is it’s own compliment to Ghosh.

As the Ibis steals out of Hong Kong at the end, onto it’s next adventure, you wish you were stowed away on board to live it as you have lived this trilogy.

The days went by in a whirl of revelry with words Gon Hai Fatt Choy! ringing in one’s ears wherever one went. Sometimes I celebrated with Compton and his family, sometimes with Asha-didi, Baburao and their children and grandchildren, on the houseboat. Every day Mithu would bring me auspicious delicacies from the kitchen: long, long noodles, never to be snipped for fear of cutting short one’s life; golden tangerines with leaves attached; fried rolls to invoke ingots of gold. By the end of it, I confess, I was quite worn out: it was a relief to set off as usual today, for a quiet day’s work.

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The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

Only his own heart-beats told him he was guilty-that he had joined the ranks of the corrupt police officers-Bailey who had kept a safe deposit in another city. Crayshaw who had been found with diamonds, Boyston against whom nothing had been definitely proved and who had been invalided out. They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name it’s price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, or even a smell remembered.

I’m going to absolutely give away the ending in this review, just so you know.

Scobie. Why did you do it? I kind of think I know, it’s not what James Wood told me it was, although I agree with his premise in his finale revealing introduction, in fact James Wood. Why did you do it?

Scobie is a great name, I couldn’t tell you why but it’s probably one of my favourite names in literature, something from my whimsy side there. Scobie is a straight up police officer in an un-named West African state during the war. He is overlooked for promotion and is split between the happiness of his job and the struggle to make his wife Louise happy. He finally achieves this by sending her away to South Africa where she is far removed from the bitchiness of their small circle. Before she goes though the newly arrived Wilson declares his love for her, and she rebuffs him.

Once Louise has gone it seems things will be better for Scobie, despite the suicide of another officer, he no longer has to coax Louise to a semblance of happiness, the heaviest of his responsibilities.

He could see in the driver’s mirror Ali nodding and beaming. It seemed to him that this was all he needed of love or friendship. He could be happy with no more in the world than this-the grinding van, the hot tea against his lips, the heavy damp weight of the forest, even the aching head, the loneliness. If I could just arrange for her happiness first, he thought, and in the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him-that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.

Then the survivors of a ship wreck appear and Scobie, whose heart is drawn towards the unremarkable, falls for a young widow, Helen, who brings up a passion and love that long ago disappeared into familiar comfort for Louise. As Scobie flounders in his new found feelings, clashing as they would with his Catholic faith, he loses his anchor and starts to list in his own world, and slowly, inexorably, draws towards Yusef the Syrian merchant, who helps him in his own way. His is also under the watch of Wilson, who has an ulterior motive behind his arrival as a clerk.

He had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never catch the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded his allegiance. The word ‘pity’ is used as loosely as the word ‘love’: the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.

After the affair lasts some time, Louise suddenly announces she is coming home and Scobie ends his relationship with Helen, but is understandably wracked by guilt as Louise wants to start afresh and thinks that confession for them both will help. As he flounders more and more, Yusef inadvertently pushes him over the edge and he sees only one way out.

EPIC SPOILER ALERT. And it’s here that I have a problem with James Wood’s introduction. He reveals that Scobie commits suicide before the book even starts, as part of his critique of how Scobie is a flawed character by Greene’s standards. On the one hand I agree with elements of his premise, on the other hand, he’s told me the ending before I’ve read it, and after finishing I feel he has influenced how I feel about the book. Wood’s believes that Scobie would not in reality have committed suicide, as the feelings that would have caused him to divert down this route would have lessened over time, using an argument from George Orwell, (either he would have had an affair long before, and his guilt would have lessened, or his fear of adultery being a mortal sin would have forced him to stop) and so he would of survived his own emotional storm in the face of his staunch Catholic beliefs.
My own feeling is that it’s Yusef, one of my favourite characters in the book, who finally pushes Scobie when Scobie goes to him for help late in the book.
Scobie’s unravelling starts when he lets off the Portuguese captain by burning his letter, and continues when he asks Yusef for the money to send Louise to South Africa. I felt that while he proclaims his suicide will allow Louise and Helen to be happy, that they will be better off without him, it is a way to convince himself that the suicide will allow his God to forgive him. For me the cause is the corruption of himself, of which Helen is merely a part. The erosion of his scruples are what drags him down, and his lack of trust following his own betrayal, sends him to Yusef who causes him more pain, and he can simply see no way back.

But despite my petty annoyance at James Wood, I enjoyed The Heart of the Matter. Greene depicts his characters with the just right level of depth, and even characters such as Father Rank, Wilson or Yusef are painted with enough detail to allow them to greatly contribute to the story without being major players. Yusef especially I felt was a great counter point to Scobie, and a book centred around their relationship would have potentially been just as interesting.
I can’t say it’s my favourite Greene novel, and I would certainly recommend reading the introduction after you’ve finished, but if you like Greene, you’ll like Scobie.

He had known police officers whose nerves broke down in the effort to separate a single grain of incontestable truth; they ended, some of them, by striking a witness, they were pilloried in the local Creole papers and were invalided home or transferred. It woke in some men a virulent hatred of a black skin, but Scobie, had long ago, during his fifteen years, passed through the dangerous stages; now lost in the tangle of lies he felt an extraordinary affection for these people who paralysed an alien form of justice by so simple a method.

 

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One River – Wade Davis

Schultes was an odd choice to become a sixties icon. His politics were exceedingly conservative. Neither a Democrat or a Republican, he claimed to be a royalist who professed not to believe in the American Revolution. When the presidential election results are published in his local newspaper, The Melrose Gazette, there is always one vote for Queen Elizabeth II. A proud Bostonian, he will have nothing to do with one New England Family. He will not use a Kennedy stamp, insists on calling New York City’s Kennedy Airport by it’s original name, Idlewild, and will not walk on Boylston Avenue in Cambridge, now that its name has been officially changed to John F. Kennedy Boulevard. When Jackie Kennedy visited the Botanical Museum, Schultes vanished. Rumour had it that he hid in his office closet to avoid having to guide her through the exhibits.

Take a lot of plants, trees, seeds, some of them hallucinogenic, some known, lots unknown, a dog, Botany’s answer to Indiana Jones, his brightest student and another wide eyed yet equally capable student, Rubber, Orchids, Coca, a cast of incredible and wonderful characters and a sizeable chunk of South America and slowly drift down the Amazon river, from one end to the over, from one tributary to the next, and you have, well you have a lot more than One River, I have to say.

Much like the river of the title, I imagine anyway, this is a big, sprawling book that seems to be a biography, a travelogue and a study of medicinal and hallucinogenic plants mashed in a great mortar and pestle and pressed onto the pages. Ostensibly dedicated to the memory of Tim Plowman, Wade Davis has written a detailed biography of Richard Evans Schultes (who has become a hero of mine on the basis of this book), as well as the histories of rubber and Coca and their impact, the lives and roles of Indians in the Amazon basin and beyond, and their incredible knowledge and understanding of the world around them. Along the way he travels with Tim, throws in the histories of Richard Spruce, a bit off Alfred Russell Wallace, the Inca’s and even a little bit of Peyote.

What this meant was that while reading, I drifted in and out of interest. Just when I got into the life of Richard Schultes, we were back with Wade Davis. Just when you remember what Davis was doing the last time we were with him, we were back with Schultes, or spinning off with a detailed history of whatever it was that Davis was talking about at that point. In complete naivety I came to the book to read about the Amazon and despite thinking I would enjoy the travelogue parts, it is in fact the biography of Schultes that I grew to love, a man with a passion and curiosity for plants that drove through almost any obstacles that nature or man placed in his way which I could only admire more and more throughout the book. Davis also gives detailed history or everything relevant to the narrative. Indeed, the exploits of the rubber barons, particularly  Julio Cesar Arana were horrific, and made uncomfortable reading, yet still fascinated me, particularly after all those years of hard work were ended by petty shortsightedness of the US government.

It is the sheer breadth of the book that makes it feel like an encyclopedia while reading. The Latin plant names, and technical botanical terms which at the same time piqued my interest in botany, but not quite enough and so kept me at arms length. The switching between Schultes and Davis would have been easier to keep pace with without the additional history of subjects related to where they were or what they were doing, this all made One River feel like three different books.

Until.

Until I finished. Then it became a great book, filled with seemingly endless information on the Amazon rainforest, and it’s human and flora inhabitants and the adventure for their discovery and their impact on medicine, and in the case of cocaine and rubber, on society and technology across the whole world.

By this time Waterton was familiar with the work of Brodie and Bancroft, and one morning he decided to experiment with their technique. He began by injecting the poison into the shoulder of a female donkey. In ten minutes the creature appeared to be dead. Waterton, being rather accomplished with a blade, having bled himself on at least 136 occasions, made a small incision in the animals windpipe and began to inflate its lungs with a bellows. The donkey revived. When Waterton stopped the flow of air, the creature once again succumbed. Resuming artificial respiration, he nursed the animal until the effects of the poison wore off. After two hours the donkey stood up and walked away. This treatment marked a turning point in the history of medicine.

It wasn’t until towards the end of the book that I thought of the Indiana Jones comparison for Schultes, and I’m pretty sure it’s a comparison he himself would of not appreciated, maintaining as he did in the book that he hadn’t known any adventures. Yet his journeys up and down rivers and through jungles far outstrip giant rolling boulders and alien crystal skulls. Travelling for days to get treatment for Beriberi and malaria, then continuing with his collecting showed an almost stubborn refusal to let these inconveniences to get in the way of the job in hand. He believed and appreciated the knowledge and expertise of the native indians, making great efforts to understand them and their worldview, which was sometimes completely alien to what he knew and understood himself.

These traits influenced both Davis and Tim Plowman, who spent his life researching Coca, before the narcotic derivative took over the known world and forever tarnished a nutritional stimulant used by people for thousands of years before it became a good time drug for everyone. He actually managed to trace it’s evolution throughout the different locations in South America.

Coca had been found to contain such impressive amounts of vitamins and minerals that Duke compared it to the average nutritional contents of fifty foods regularly consumed in Latin America. Coca ranked higher than the average in calories, protein, carbohydrate, and fiber. It was also higher in calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin A, and riboflavin, so much so that one hundred grams of the leaves, the typical daily consumption of a coquero in the Andes, more than satisfied the Recommended Dietary Allowance for these nutrients as well as vitamin E. The amount of calcium in the leaves was extraordinary, more than had ever been reported for any edible plant.

So in the end I struggled, I forced myself to finish it before the new year, but it was worth it all. Now that I’ve finished I will delve back in to various bits, particularly one of the final chapters which contained interesting history on the Inca’s. If you like travel writing, you’ll like bits of this, if you like history, you like some of this, if you like biography, you’ll like most of this, If you like botany, you’ll love this. If you like to read about a real life adventurer (Don’t call him Indy) then you’ll definitely love this.

The best way to Oaxaca from the capital was to take the train; there was no road. If a train was scheduled to depart at seven in the morning, you would phone the station at ten and ask when the seven o’clock train was leaving. “At one,” might be the response. That meant you began to pack at three and make your way to the train station around half past four. At six, with tremendous fanfare and not the slightest indication of concern or embarrassment, the dispatcher would ring a bell, signaling the conductor, whose high, piercing whistle left the platform whirling with commotion. At seven in the evening, or slightly before, the train would make it’s way slowly out of the station.

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