LEADING ARTICLE : You can hide, but you sure can't run

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One night about a century ago, in the dark and fire and confusion, Jim jumped. Though he might later emerge as "Lord Jim", Conrad's hero was doomed by that moment. He could never return to the centre of things. He would forever wander on the periphery of the world. A hundred years ago, this seemed a terrible fate, something to place a man's humanity under the most searching examination. Where a modern writer might see Jim's subsequent adventures and triumphs in Borneo as the heart of the story, and the preceding catastrophe as merely a device to get him there, Conrad saw that all of this was merely a coda to the primal act of running away: that nothing could withdraw the awful cowardice of a moment's surrender.

Jim jumped; Nick Leeson plunged; 14-year-old Peter Kerry took a holiday with a stolen passport and credit card. Between those stories lies a whole century in which the drifters and the marginal types become more heroic until at last the whole idea of a centre is discredited or attacked. When all values, like all motion, are relative, there is nothing any longer to distinguish running away from staying at your post. It all becomes a matter of viewpoint.

The progress can be charted in literature as well as anywhere: from Conrad, who was interested in people who knew they had fled from the centre; to Graham Greene, some of whose heroes did not ever want to go back; and then on to Jack Kerouac, whose heroes hoped by constant movement to annihilate the very possibility of fixed places. Then we slide into journalism and popular culture. Hunter S Thompson reels through Denver airport, "a man on the move, just twisted enough to be totally confident", Bruce Springsteen is "Born to Run" and in a thousand road movies flight and freedom have merged with love, and perhaps replaced it in the great marketplace of fantasy.

There can hardly be anyone travelling to work this morning or contemplating a day at home who does not dream of flight. Even the cars that choke every road into every city are sold by commercials promising independence and escape.

But escape, like so many other fine things, is diminished by mass production. The dream of soaring above the world becomes the cramped and humiliating reality of commercial aviation. And if, by some huge effort, the tourist reaches a wilderness or rainforest where credit cards are no longer accepted, he risks finding it infested with rock stars and fleeing spivs. This moral is a deeply disappointing one. But the gods of the copybook headings cannot be outrun. Lasting societies can only be maintained by people who stand their ground.

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