Tag Archives: Greece

Big Birthdays

My 60th birthday is just around the corner. It feels like A Big One, a final trip over the threshold of middle age and the beginning of a long, slow fall into the basement of old age.

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How will I mark this bitter-sweet occasion? Gill is generously taking me away somewhere for a couple of days the week before….I know not where. I will hopefully celebrate The Big Day somewhere with the family. And then it’s off to Greece, to magical Zagori in the Pindos mountains of Epirus, an intriguing area I only discovered last year.

No doubt our group of 13 will eat plenty of the excellent local food and partake frequently of friendship-inducing tsipouro, between bursts of energetic mountain-climbing, gorge-walking, horse-riding and whitewater-rafting.

Early Big Birthdays are hazy. Or perhaps I was too focused on bean-counting studying and exams to celebrate 18th and 21st milestones.

I suppose the dedication paid off. I spent my 30th in beautiful life-changing Bermuda, although a joint 29-and-holding Miami Vice party with cute Canadian Diane Olchowik is even more memorable. A long night of Don Johnson no-socks and sleeves-rolled-up dancing and drinking culminated in a bit of skinny-dipping in Sonesta Bay as the sun rose on the island’s legendary south shore beaches.

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Fast forward 10 years and I was working in Germany for a few months. I had just met Gill, now my beloved wife of nigh on 20 years, and she helped to co-ordinate a lovely surprise 40th birthday bash at my brother’s place, while I was home for the weekend.

The Big 5-0 was marked by a moment of madness: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and a staggering 5,895 metres above the wildlife of Tanzania’s Serengeti. The motivation was as much to raise money for a very good cause as it was to shake a fist at the advancing years.

Actually, we climbed Kili in February, a few months ahead of my birthday, to take advantage of one of the climbing windows. May came and it was an excuse for a long weekend of drunken debauchery in the blues bars, pizza places and casinos of Soho.

And here I am, on the cusp of 60. How did that happen? Where have all the years gone? Will I make it to 3 score and 10….?

I’ll report back on the 60th activities. Just in case it’s the last Big Birthday I feel like marking in any memorable way.

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Write, write, write

At a recent travel exhibition, I went to an inspiring session on how to pitch your writing ideas to editors.

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Lynne Hughes (founder and publisher of Wanderlust travel magazine), Phoebe Smith (Wanderlust’s editor) and Debbie Chapman (commissioning travel editor for Summersdale Publishers) shared some invaluable thoughts on best practice for pitching article and book ideas….and some cautionary tales on how definitely not to pitch.

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You may be the best writer out there, but unless you can get your ideas and writing noticed by those with The Publishing Power, you’ll never see your work in print. Well, not in respected print and digital publications anyway.

Regardless of what you’re trying to create and pitch yourself, they all said: just write, write, write. The more you practise, the better your writing will become. Hopefully. And read, read, read. Absorb as much as you can from published writers. Fingers crossed some of that purple prose will rub off….

I haven’t published much on this humble blog recently. But neither have I been totally unproductive. I’ve been busy creating content for a collaboration with photographer and film-maker friend Mark Melling: welcome to Great Escapations.

Our first project is to tell the story of the intriguing area and charming people of Zagori, high in the Pindos mountains of north-west Greece, almost hugging the Albanian border. We hope our films, images and words will give you a strong sense of life in this historical community of 46 stone-built and slate-roofed villages.

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We’re almost ready to unleash Great Escapations on the outside world. Let the pitching begin…..

 

Kapesovo, Zagori

Newsflash….this article won the Telegraph’s Just Back competition and was published in the Saturday print version on August 27, 2016 and online on telegraph.co.uk on August 29 – *surprised and chuffed*

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My latest entry in The Telegraph’s Just Back weekly travel writing competition:


Joanna pulls me into the kitchen before dinner. A necklace of walnuts, sewn together on a thread, has been coated in grape must, rolled in flour and “boiled with ashcharcoal? – before being strung up on a makeshift washing line.

She leads me down to the boiler room, where several pieces of nutty jewellery – zmpeki – hang for 5 or 6 days, to soften and infuse before being offered to guests.

Tradition echoes everywhere in the Thoukididis Guest House, restored by Joanna’s father over 8 years and now a faithful reproduction of a 19th century Zagorian merchant’s home.

 

You can taste the pride and love in every dish Joanna serves up in the small restaurant. Gigantes plaki – giant white beans – arrive, with spinach, leeks, sorrel, spearmint and parsley. “Anything from my garden”, near the Guest House in the stone village of Kapesovo, one of 46 settlements of Zagori. Known collectively as Zagorohoria, these sparsely populated villages sit high in the Pindus mountains of Epirus in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

“My father’s mother came from Turkey. I like to combine the cultures in my cooking”, Joanna tells me the next evening. Zucchini fritters with yoghurt appear, sprinkled with parsley, dill and spearmint; stuffed tomatoes with rice; minced meat, mashed potatoes and porcini mushrooms, foraged earlier from the side of a mountain track.

Historically, the Zagorian region relied on family members sending money back from where they found work – Turkey, Egypt, southern Greece – to survive. But some villagers are slowly embracing independence, proud to share their heritage with outsiders.

After dinner, I wander down the narrow stone alleyways to the plateia, the heart of the village and inevitably shaded by the vast, gnarled limbs of an ancient plane tree.

I’m welcomed here too, by Joanna’s mother and father, at Sterna. The tiny shop is named after the 13 metre deep well, built in 1848 to collect rainwater for the villagers. The symbolic sterna is now an illuminated feature in the middle of a Zagorian treasure-chest. I’m offered tsipouro, the traditional ouzo digestive. Then a few aperitif liqueur flavours, all made from local ingredients: walnuts, cranberries, fig. And bitter orange, surprisingly infused with coffee beans. And a Greek coffee, as black and treacly as a vat of molasses.

During the daytime, try homemade lemonade or sour cherry juice, served in wide-rimmed jam jars and topped with a single, fragrant mint leaf. Or buy mountain tea, foraged from near Kapesovo and sheafed like an archer’s quiver. Some bellows for the winter fire, perhaps, made from local black elderberry wood.

My final breakfast from Joanna is a banana and peach smoothie; fried egg, with ham wrapped around grilled cheese as comfortingly as a Zagorian welcome; homemade bread, jams and cake.

I leave Kapesovo reluctantly. But as I begin to climb the 1,200 ancient stone steps towards the next village of Vradeto, I smile and wonder whether the packed lunch in my rucksack might include a piece of peach cake.

From Corfu to Zagoria – meeting Roy Hounsell

I started dipping into the book over dinner at the enchanting Thoukididis Guest House in Kapesovo, one of the 46 villages of the remote, mountainous area of Zagoria in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

I had started my trip in Corfu. So had the author.

I was seduced by Zagoria. So was the author.

I was hooked by his story. He by the village of Koukouli.

Roy Hounsell had run out of advertising ideas. Disillusioned, he and his wife Effie had left England for Corfu in 1980, with no plan and in search of adventure.  Several years later, having fallen into a swimming pool business, they thought Corfu was being over-developed.

By chance, they visited Zagoria on the mainland, and were immediately attracted by its remoteness, traditions and serenity. After many challenges finding and buying a property to restore, they moved to the village of Koukouli in 1991.

The engaging, sometimes wryly cynical, always acutely observed story – The Papas and the Englishman – ends with Roy and Effie about to rent out a couple of rooms in their extended home, but firmly embedded in village life and accepted into the friendly community.

As chance would have it, my own journey – 25 years later – would take me to their village. On a July morning as sizzling as a Greek souvlaki skewer, I left Kapesovo and walked way down through forested hillsides, to the ancient stone bridge of Kokkori just below Kipi, and onwards to Koukouli.

At a traditional taverna under the welcoming shade of a vast plane tree, I guzzled an icily cold bottle of water and asked the owner if he had heard of Roy Hounsell.

I’ll show you the house if you like, once you’ve finished your drink.”

“You mean he still lives here?”

“Yes. But his wife Effie….she is kaput. Two years ago.”

Refreshed – and intrigued – I followed him through the traditional stone alleyways of a Zagorian village, terraced and climbing the natural contours of the Ottoman settlement. He pulled on the rope dangling down in front of some elegant, solid wooden gates, releasing the rustic lock mechanism and allowing us into the spacious hidden courtyard.

Roy“, he called.

A woman appeared. “Go up“, she said.

The bar owner nodded in the direction of some stone steps leading to the right hand one of two similar, handsome, traditional Zagorian houses.

I looked tentatively into the doorway and there, to my left, down a few steps in a slightly sunken room, was Roy Hounsell, author of The Papas and the Englishman.

Come in, come in“, he said, as though welcoming an old friend.

He was propped up in bed, cigarette in hand, whisky bottle on the cluttered bedside table, wearing pyjamas and a slightly louche look. Rather like Peter O’Toole after a night out with Oliver Reed.

I tried to shake his hand. He offered me the other one, awkwardly. “Had a stroke. About 4 years ago.”

The woman – his housekeeper, I think – appeared. “What would you like? Coffee? Tea? Whisky?

“A Greek coffee would be lovely. Thank you.”

A few minutes later, she brought a small tray laden with coffee as strong as the EU position on Greek debt, a glass of iced water and 2 slices of homemade cake, as I chatted to Roy.

For close to an hour, this charming and entertaining man regaled me with stories about his life, the book, his contacts, his health and his love of the village he and Effie had made home.

He answered a stranger’s direct – and often personal – questions unflinchingly.

Do you get back to England?

Not any more. What’s the point? Nothing there for me.”

He gave me his publisher’s contact details so that I could get a copy of the book and read it properly.

He gave me his own phone number so that I could contact him again.

But most of all, he gave me a warm glow. Roy is obviously no longer in the best of health, is without his beloved Effie and unable to drive, but even now – propped up in bed, coughing and uncomfortable – he exuded a lust for life and for language.

Have you read Bill Bryson? Funny writer.”

I thanked Roy for his spontaneous hospitality, wished him luck and headed back to the taverna, under the shade of a vast plane tree.

The Papas and the Englishman

 

Books + Places = Trip Fiction

Love books? Love travel? Then you’ll embrace TripFiction as warmly as the Mistral wraps itself around a village square in Provence.

This intriguing and inspiring website recognises that books set in a location offer great holiday reading. They help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

How true.

A friend passed me a copy of Victoria Hislop’s The Thread before we visited Thessaloniki recently. Neither an author nor a book I’d usually pluck off the shelves, reading it before we went added so much to what we saw, smelt and felt in this multi-layered and historically important city in northern Greece.

Inspired by our Greek odyssey, I read Things Can Only Get Feta after we got back.  This is about two journalists – and their mad dog – spending a year in a remote hillside village in the Mani area, on the Pelopponese peninsula. A rugged, unspoiled landscape, it was also the beloved home of travel writer and explorer Patrick Leigh Fermor. I lent the book to neighbours and friends Steve & Fionnuala just before they headed to nearby Kalamata. They said it added hugely to their holiday…although they did fight over who got first dibs.

Colin Dexter famously rooted his Inspector Morse books in Oxford. Brilliantly brought to televisual life by John Thaw, part of the success was due to the surprising amount of murder and mayhem being wrought so frequently in such a beautiful city.

Countless other books have come to be known as much by their location as by their content:

  • Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
  • The Shipping News – Annie Proulx
  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres
  • A Room with a View – E.M. Forster
  • Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

You get the idea. I’m sure you can conjure up many more from your own reading list…..

I contacted TripFiction a few days ago after reading on their blog that they were looking for readers to review some of their location-based books.

I’m now digging in for a Hard Cold Winter. Written by Glen Erik Hamilton, this is a thriller played out in Seattle and the nearby Olympic Mountains. Again, it’s not a book I’d otherwise have chosen. I’m hoping it’s well written and engaging, but if it’s not I can at least immerse myself in the sense of place. And Seattle is on my long list of places to visit.

Thanks to Tina at TripFiction for sending me this book and also The House on Cold Hill by Peter James, based much nearer to home, in Sussex. I’ll post my reviews here as well as on TripFiction’s site when I’ve travelled to each bookish destination.

I am just going outside…and may be some time. 

Book review – Things Can Only Get Feta

Inspired by our own recent trip to Greece, I asked for Things Can Only Get Feta as a birthday present from my family. From the Amazon synopsis it sounded entertaining. And I’d like to visit the Peloponnese, the rugged three-fingered peninsula south west of Athens.

After an Arctic winter, a British recession, and a downturn in the newspaper industry, two journalists and their dog embark on an adventure in the wild and beautiful southern Peloponnese. A perfect plan, except for one thing – Greece is deep in economic crisis. And if fiscal failure can’t overturn the couple’s escapade in rural Greece, perhaps macabre local customs, a scorpion invasion, zero dog-tolerance, and eccentric expats will.

Marjory McGinn and her husband Jim are the escaping journalists. They settle for a year in a remote hillside village in the Mani region, middle finger of the peninsula and beloved home and resting place of famous explorer and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

One of the hooks of the story is their dog, Wallace. But the yappy, ill-disciplined Jack Russell terrier is also a problem, terrorising the locals and messing with my own head. The pesky pooch dominates way too much of the flimsy narrative, to my mind.

Sure, there are some charming people, places and incidents uncovered by the author, as she embeds herself in the timeless rural community. And I enjoyed the insights into the Greek language and psyche, descriptions of the Mani terrain and some of the more bizarre incidents encountered in their year’s adventure, But I found her writing style a little annoying, I’m afraid, and I’m not sure I came to like the couple.

Worst of all, there are typographical and spelling errors sprinkled throughout Things Can Only Get Feta, like specks of the oily cheese crumbled on a Greek salad.

Stick to reading the master, Patrick Leigh Fermor, for better writing and a far deeper insight into Mani and its people. Without the dog.

 

 

Greece

You know that feeling when you do something, or go somewhere, or eat something, and it’s so good that it exceeds even your most optimistic expectations?

Well, our recent trip to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, blew our little socks off.

The people, the food, the history, the landscape, the culture….all were an absolute joy. We were Greek virgins before we went, now we’re already checking flights for the next visit.

Reading Victoria Hislop’s The Thread had given us real insight into the city’s tumultuous history. Walking and eating tours in our first couple of days brought all those centuries to vivid current life. Ottoman hammams, Byzantine-inspired spices in the market, the Jewish memorial, the narrow atmospheric streets of Ano Poli…layer after layer of Thessaloniki’s rich history was laid out in front of us.

And the food…….ah, the food. I’m salivating at the memory of all the fresh fish, fruit and vegetables on offer at the city’s vibrant markets, ending up on plates of the eateries tumbling into the cobbled streets of Ladadika, now trendy but once the olive oil and red-light district.

We were in Thessaloniki as guests of the city’s Hotels Association, to promote the city and other nearby places in northern Greece. And it was all thanks to those lovely people at Silver Travel Advisor – The Voice of Mature Travellers – for whom I’ve written some articles on our magical Greek experiences.

I’ll add links to the articles as soon as they’re live, and hopefully they will add colour to this relatively monochrome summary of a dazzling adventure.

Thessaloniki was an absolute delight, from the moment we landed at Makedonia Airport. The whole trip was orchestrated by the remarkable Evdokia Tsatsouri, from the Hotels Association but now with the estimable Electra Hotels group.

Like a master puppeteer, she pulled all the strings of everyone involved in our expeditions to Halkidiki and Mount Athos, Meteora, Mount Olympus and Pieria, ensuring our hotels, meals, sightseeing tours were all organised impeccably, and gave us a flavour of the real Greece and its people.

Efcharistó, Evdokia.

The separate articles on Silver Travel Advisor will flesh out our experiences, but here are a few more images of some unforgettable memories from northern Greece:

Olympiada – Loulou’s story

My entry for The Telegraph’s Just Back weekly travel writing competition:


Loulou carried plate after plate out to the sunny terrace. Kiwi fruit, yoghurt, feta cheese – drizzled with oil and specked with oregano gathered on Aristotle’s mountain. Tomatoes from the small garden, fat olives, pale green peppers. And freshly baked bougatsa, a traditional Greek breakfast pastry, dusted with sugar.

And then the main dish – a round terracotta ramekin with steaming baked eggs, tomato, peppers and pastourma, air-dried meat rooted in Ottoman history.

Her husband quietly dug the vegetable patch as we ate, joking that despite his retirement, he remained as busy as ever, restoring every room of the Liotopi himself.

The family own two hotels and a beachside restaurant in Olympiada, a small village built around an arc of sand, where the Strimonikos Gulf of the Aegean sea kisses the shore on the knuckle of the third finger of the Halkidiki peninsula.

Olympiada is named after the mother of Alexander the Great. The partly excavated ancient city of Stageira stands above the village, high on a rocky promontory to the south and en route to the monastic haven of Mount Athos, at the fingertip of the peninsula. Stageira is the birthplace of Aristotle, Greece’s most favoured philosopher and tutor to warrior Alexander.

But Olympiada wasn’t always so alluring.

The Alexiadou family were expelled from their Asia Minor home in 1922, escaping from Smyrna along with thousands of other Orthodox Greeks, to avoid a brutal death at the hands of marauding Turks. At the same time, long-settled Muslims left Greek Macedonia to cross the Aegean in the opposite direction.

After breakfast, we strolled along the road to Loulou’s other hotel. Here, she posed proudly underneath a grainy black and white photograph of her grandparents. When the Alexiadous arrived in Olympiada in the early 1920s, it was a desolate, marshy place. Many of their friends and fellow refugees died from malaria, others fled to Thrace or safer places in Macedonia. Access to the village was by boat only, the first road not arriving until the 1960s, winding down to the village through densely wooded hills.

But Loulou’s grandparents stayed, carving out a new life through hard work and a desire to grow fresh, enduring roots. The refugee family’s mantra was passed down through the generations: always care more for people than for money. And every moment you spend at the Liotopi, you feel confident that sentiment will endure for another century.   

We had been given fruit liqueurs and delicate homemade cakes as soon as we had climbed the wide, steep steps to the hotel’s entrance hall. And, arriving back in our room late that night, a mince pie-like fresh pastry rested on a small tray on the bed, against which lay a hand-written card and the message:

Good night – with love – Loulou, Tina, Anastasia



Book review – The Thread

The Thread is the first book I’ve read by Victoria Hislop, the best-selling author of The Island and The Return.

She is not a writer I would normally pick off the shelves, but our good friend Alex Overington passed The Thread our way after acquiring it during their recent trip to South Africa, and knowing that we are soon heading to Thessaloniki ourselves.

Gill and I are both Greek virgins, and are really excited about visiting Greece’s second city, in the north of the ancient country, and some of its surrounding landscapes, on a writing trip for those lovely people at Silver Travel Advisor.

My anticipation has only been heightened by reading this book, which offers up a fascinating insight into Thessaloniki’s multi-layered history and turbulent time throughout the 20th century. It also provides some stark parallels with the refugee crisis engulfing Europe today.

Occupying a strategically important location 520 km north of Athens, the port city is the capital of Greek Macedonia and played a central role in Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

After the Prologue, set in 2007 – where we meet ageing Dimitri and Katerina Komninos and their grandson – the story takes us back to 1917, and a very different Thessaloniki. Christians, Jews and Muslims happily co-exist in the ancient, labyrinthine streets. But a devastating fire rips through the city and changes its fabric – physical, religious and cultural – forever.

As part of the rebuilding process, Muslims are repatriated to Turkey and Asia Minor, from where more Christians replace them in Greece. Ringing any bells?

5 years later, rampaging Turkish soldiers attack Christians and force them from Asia Minor. A young Katerina Sarafoglou is separated from her mother, but rescued by Dimitri’s brother. A terrible refugee crisis ensues, with Katerina ending up in Thessaloniki with her new family, while her own mother and sister start a hard life near Athens.

Katerina is luckier. Her loving adoptive mother and sisters live in a poor but happy neighbourhood, next to the Jewish Moreno family. When she is old enough, Katerina works for them as a star seamstress and embroiderer.

But the Germans occupy the city in 1942, slowly stripping Thessaloniki of its supplies, pride…and ultimately, its remaining 50,000 Jewish population. After forcing the Morenos out of their business and home, they are transported to the death camps in Poland for the Final Solution.

The end of the war does not bring peace to Greece or to the city. Greek nationalists despise perceived collaborators, and Dimitri – an idealist – gets caught up with the Communists fighting the right wing government and army. He hides in the mountains of northern Greece, near the Albanian border, as his hated, opportunistic and greedy father Konstantinos becomes ever wealthier back in the city.

A vicious civil war follows, and then a devastating earthquake destroys more of the hard-pressed city.

The threads of the story, and its surviving characters, are pulled together in 2007, a time of relative peace and false affluence. But we know that the city and country are about to be engulfed in yet another crisis, following the global financial melt-down and the ensuing dilemma of bankrupt Greece’s place in the EU.

The Thread is a fascinating insight into Thessaloniki’s rich history and culture, and will undoubtedly enhance our own exploration of its streets, both ancient and modern.

But as a novel, I’m afraid I found the writing and the characterisations one-dimensional. Everyone is either a saint, a hero or a demon, and the plot plods from one historic event to the next, with little subtlety or shading.

As 1943 began, the city descended further into a state of famine. This took over as the main preoccupation of all those who lived in Thessaloniki.

The Moreno workshop was managing to retain all of its remaining employees (as well as Jacob, three others had died in the labour camp) but there was now little work. The Germans no longer came in for their suits and even the wealthier people of the city – “who must all be collaborators”, Kyria Moreno concluded – could not get the fabric for their new clothes. Konstantinos Komninos had put up the prices so much that only the very rich could afford to pay.

The star of the book is undoubtedly Thessaloniki, and I can’t wait to walk through its history.

Europe – IN or OUT?

I love Europe.

In the early 1960s, when I was just 5 or 6 and England still hadn’t won the World Cup, my pioneering parents bought a travelette (a collapsible caravan contraption). The neighbours in suburban West Wickham waved us off, and we drove all the way down to the Costa Brava, spending two weeks on the beach of a blissfully unspoiled and still quintessentially Spanish fishing village.

I honed my nascent German language skills – and snogged Bridget Heap from Clarendon House – in Koblenz, on exchanges with Detlef and his family in the 1970s.

More recently, Gill and I have whizzed all over France on Eurostar

We have a continuing addiction to all things Italian, and have just returned from skiing in bellissimo Champoluc.

In April, we’ll be going to Greece for the first time, visiting Thessaloniki to write an article for the lovely folks at Silver Travel Advisor, then moving on to historic Mount Olympus and Halkidiki.

I embrace everything about Europe…its people, languages, history, food, wine.

Everything.

Except the bloated, bureaucratic European project that is the EU. It’s teetering on the precipice of failure, and I’m leaning heavily towards the exit door.

I’m not racist. I’m not xenophobic. And I’m not rooted in the past. But I can’t believe the status quo is sustainable.

When we signed up for the Common European Market in 1973 – ratified in a 1975 referendum – could our worst fears have anticipated the reality of 2016?

  • an annual EU budget of close to €150 billion
  • more than 750 Members of the European Parliament
  • EU auditors reported that the bureaucrats had misspent €7 billion of the 2013 budgetThe auditors have refused to sign off the accounts for 20 years in a row
  • 2-speed economies of the greatly enlarged EU over protracted periods, and yet no single country being able to resort to interest rate changes to stimulate or slow down its own economy (thank goodness we stayed out of the single currency and retain the £)
  • a plethora of unwanted and stifling legislation handed down from Brussels
  • untrammelled immigration, from other EU countries and – through assimilation over time – well beyond Europe

I may sound like a Daily Telegraph reader, or – worse – a UKIP voter, but it feels like we have lost control, to differing degrees, of our sovereignty, our legislation and our borders.

And I don’t buy the IN camp’s scaremongering that our economy will collapse if we decide to exit. Yes, there will be obviously some significant adjustments required, and there may well be a reduction in GDP and a threat to some jobs. But that impact will hopefully be temporary, until we rediscover old allies, sign up new trade relationships with vibrant emerging markets, and embrace our renewed independence,

But we will regain control of our own British future for the long term.

I love Europe. But I love its separate, beautiful, independent cultures rather than its homogeneous, bureaucratic mass.

I’m walking inexorably towards the OUT door. Possibly regardless of any outwardly face-saving deal Mr Cameron might try to bring back ahead of the referendum, to persuade us to stay IN, as I fear it won’t represent substantive change.

And if we vote to leave, it might just signal the beginning of the end of the grand federal Europe project.