In my book I write about Richard Hawthorne, a Nottingham printer, who has built a web of friendships in his native UK city: "In the course of a day, a visitor moving through the city with Hawthorne might expect to meet a leading imam, the editor of the newspaper, the president of the chamber of commerce, and a director of human relations."
This was written following a whirlwind visit in 1999. Now at age eighty-one Richard has lost none of his irrepressible zest for life and remarkable gift of friendship for people in all walks of life in his native city. When I arrive with my young Dutch co-facilitator, Willemijn Lambert, at the start of an intensive week of talks and workshops in four English cities, Richard is waiting at the station eager to brief us on our program.
At one event we hear from Maxine, an Afro-Caribbean community activist who described her first encounter with Richard. "I thought, 'Who is this old white man?'" but now "Richard has become one of my best friends." They tease each other affectionately as we drive home with Richard attempting to navigate Nottingham traffic while talking non-stop. "Sometimes when we have community meetings in his home he is the only white person there," says Maxine.
We meet with Dr Musharraf Hussain, Director of the Karimia Institute, a leading British Muslim organization which works on a range of projects including community development, adult classes, and interfaith work. At his invitation we lead a workshop on "honest conversation" for young men and elders in his community center and do two radio interviews for the center's Radio Dawn.
Later I speak at a public seminar hosted by Nottingham's interfaith council. The Lord Mayor opens the evening by welcoming me to the city and although the event officially concludes at 9:15 and his official car is waiting outside neither he nor the rest of the audience seem anxious to end the dialogue.
The next morning at BBC Radio Nottingham, where we record another interview, Richard greets his local member of parliament. And so it goes on.
Richard, who was "painfully shy" as a young man, says his outreach to the Nottingham community began many years ago with a realization that "Britain had recruited people from the Caribbean and Pakistan to do the work we did not want to do and we were treating them as second-class citizens." Sitting in his car one morning he "felt an inner call to open my heart to people I had kept at arm's length."
I think it is safe to say that there are few people in Nottingham today who have opened their heart and their home to so many people. As we drive off to our next stop, Bradford, Richard's booming laugh sends us on our way. He is already preparing for his next community meeting that evening.