Thoughts and Words

God Bless American Women

In my 20s I was a radio DJ. Once every week for three hours the patients of the Whittington Hospital in North London had the pleasure to listen to me and my selection of music. I can imagine my children cringing at this thought, but I would point out to them that this was long before they were even a twinkle and once even your dad could rock.

Except it wasn’t rock but middle of the road and the biggest challenge was sorting out requests put into the list by colleagues as a test. I avoided an early pitfall when the card said Hang on in there Baby, by Johnny Bristol for everyone in Maternity. I moved on easily to somewhere else

One of the skills encouraged by my peers was the segue, moving seamlessly from one thought to another, from one track to the next.

I have not tried to do any segue with these essays but today I see the opportunity. Just sit back and marvel at the ease of this!

Last week was Ben and Hannah’s marriage which took place in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. As well as Hannah, there have been many great Trinity Men, and among the greatest must be Issac Newton and his whole academic life, from 1661 to 1696, was spent there, first as an undergraduate and then as a Fellow from 1667.

Newton’s most known achievement was stating the three laws of motion which have been taught ever since as the basis of classical mechanics. Half of all the maths exams I took at school, right up to A level were based on understanding them.

It’s the third law, paraphrased as every action causes a reaction, that is the subject of this essay, and the segue is complete.

Before we get into the meat we need some background. Here are some quotes from someone quite famous, starting in the early 90s to current days.

“You know, it doesn’t really matter what women write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

You’ve probably guessed it already. These are words of wisdom from the now President Trump. I am not sure how long I need to go on to make the point.

“I have days where, if I come home — and I don’t want to sound too much like a chauvinist,” the President said, “but when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof.”

“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”

“If Hilary can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America”

Trump hit a new low after the emergence of a video in which he discusses “grabbing (women) by the p****” and states that “when you’re a star, they let you do it”.

I probably didn’t need to go through so many quotes (and the selection is huge) but what I am trying to show is that America has elected a misogynist, sexist, and oaf of a President.

If that was the action we have now started to see the reaction and boy, what a reaction it has been.

To show you the strength of the response we need to go and look at an organisation called Emily’s List. (www.emilyslist.org) whose mission iswe ignite change by getting pro-choice Democratic women elected to office’ 

In 2016, they supported 900 applications from women who wanted to get into representative office. By 2018 and the upcoming mid-terms they have had 38,000 applications.

‘Emily’s List isn’t just about funding elections to get women elected. Our focus is on putting the right .. women into office who will balance the face of the government and make decisions that really improve societies across the country.’

It’s about time we saw this change.

I won’t get into a discussion about Hilary Clinton’s credentials to be President, but she was the first female candidate from a major party to run the Presidential race. Of course, there has not been a female President.

Americans spend much of their time going on and on about equality, the rights of minorities, freedom, and democracy yet when it comes to balancing their government with gender equality they have been useless.

Rwanda had the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide. There, women have won 63.8% of seats in the lower house. Around the world, as of October 2017, 11 women are serving as Head of State and 12 are serving as Head of Government.

If you rank the countries of the world in order of women’s representation America comes 100th on the list. Come on America you can do better than that.

Unless he is re-elected or impeached, President Trump has 1,003 more days in office and only then will we properly be able to assess his achievements. It is just possible that his greatest success will be finally convincing American women and the electorate that they need women in the heart of Government to be able to change attitudes such as his.

This might be the perfect reaction to his actions.

We All Need an Alter Ego

I am a curious person. I like odd and unusual facts. I like to know about the unusual. When I am writing I need to check not just facts but personalities and all that takes me to many an odd internet site. Then, to follow the enquiry may require an email address and that alone can limit curiosity.

Give a company an email address and you know you will be swamped with emails from them or all their affiliates. It’s boring, tedious and fills your email box with rubbish, most of which you don’t now want. It makes finding the important as hard as that proverbial needle.

The marketing emails don’t just arrive for a few days but can continue for months, and forever you will be receiving invitations to move home, receive free gardening products (the most unlikely purchase for me), music streaming services, advice on PPI and eventually pornography and invitations from dating sites.

But worse, you have left a small but perceptible and traceable footprint on the world and one that could follow you forever. That is the danger we face by giving an online email address. But I have a solution.

This is my tip of the month to stop you being swamped with unwanted emails.

I have an alter ego. I won’t tell you his real name because to me it is as important as any of my passwords. My alter ego, call him Nicky has his own email address and account. In fact, his name is sufficiently androgynous that if he really wants to he can pass himself off as a woman (There was once a character who had to make a passing comment on her bra fitting. How else was I going to do the research?).

Nicky is not his real name but for someone who doesn’t exist at all using a pseudonym, is a difficult concept to follow, but I will stick with it.

He is registered with the BBC as a TV licence holder, so he can listen to the radio. There was a time, long before Sasha and thoughts of a writing career were still embryonic when Nicky joined an online dating site and there is still a trickle of replies into his email. That was for an unfinished plot.

I was talking to Annie over the weekend about online dating and she was complaining about profiles where men understate their age. I didn’t dare tell her about Nicky. Well, at least now that is out in the open but I can say Sasha met me with my real name and age.

I could blame Nicky and his life on the writer’s need to undertake research, but that would be a half-truth. I am endlessly curious and to access many websites you need to log in. That is where Nicky comes in useful. I can wander around the internet leaving a false and fictional trail. I email a company or embassy, ask for advice without the worry that my call has been logged.

I never use my alter ego for nefarious purposes. Neither, Nicky nor I troll or comment on websites. Maybe more so than me, Nicky is a benign character.

I note all this because this weekend I checked Nicky’s email.

There were bitcoins offers, exotic holidays, simple online pharmacy products, more music streaming, of course, the usual mix of special and rather explicit sexual offers, and an email from my now favourite internet dating domain name, Muslims2Marry. All easily and quickly deleted.

Checking Nicky’s account is like checking my own spam email, but it has a nostalgia. Sometimes I remembered why I had started a trail and sometimes I looked at the copy to see if I can pick up tips for my own book marketing, sometimes it takes me into a character and I wonder what their life would be like if this was their main email account.

But Nicky has his own spam folder. This should be the spam at the end of all spam accounts. I was ready for a global delete when something caught my eye.

It was an email from Bethea. I don’t know her other than through her emails. She is an online astrologer. For the moment we can put aside how she can operate a service that caters to the masses with the individual needs of me, or in this case, Nicky. It is interesting enough to copy in full.

I know it’s not easy to believe right now, Nicky, but you were born to be rich.

After a comprehensive examination of your chart, it’s become clear to me that something’s been hindering you from happiness and choosing the road to success.

Right now, you’re suffering from fear and self-doubt — you’re second-guessing your abilities and, in turn, blocking your own happiness. However, Nicky, together we can see you through this phase you’re going through and help you attain everything that was meant for you.

Right now, doubt is the main obstacle to your happiness. Don’t stand in your own way a moment longer.

I have an astounding opportunity to offer to you, and time’s running out for you to take advantage. Please, don’t hesitate a moment longer.

Your Devoted Psychic Friend,

Bethea

I know it is hugely generalised and panders to the doubts that all, but the narcissist and egocentric suffer. But at times it is wonderfully useful to have a friend or stranger tell us what we want to hear.

I was with Lucinda and the mighty Bertie this weekend. Part of Bertie’s learning is to literally applaud good behaviour. Clap, smile and tell him how wonderful he is and sure enough, he never forgets how to high-five or throw a ball.

So, when Bethea, an unknown friend tells me that I have near super-power abilities and my own problems are a little fear and self-doubt, I start to feel good. After all, that fear and self-doubt are only signs of my natural humility and so are not bad at all. I know I can overcome them.

As I headed into the weekend I felt good. The best of times were ahead of me. All was going to be great. My books would sell, Sasha and I were going to be together in love and happiness. Bethea had predicted it.

Then it hit me.

It wasn’t me. My alter ego was taking over. Bethea had promised Nicky a great life. He was going to be rich and marry Sasha while I sank into obscurity.

Anyone know how to change your name with a deed poll?

Yours, Nicky

Quora Virgin

To bring my writing to a wider audience, and in an act of blatant self-publicity, I have started to respond to questions on Quora. It’s a strange place, occupied by a huge global audience of 100 million users, and gives a wonderful real-life view of the world. It is a large community. It is truly a global base.

If you don’t know, then this is how it works. It is very simple. A question is posted waiting for a community response.

What I find most interesting is the range of questions and the insight they give into the mind of the world. At one edge there are very technical questions.

Can I get a U.S. Federal Apostille for a letter issued from a U.S. consulate if there is only a consular officer’s signature, but no stamp or seal?

What if my U.S employer files a B-1 Visa petition with USCIS on my behalf to enter the U.S for a short stay and it gets approved, would I still be required to attend an interview at the U.S embassy in my country?

On the opposite edge, there are those searching for cheap erotic and vicarious thrills with sanctioned pornography.

What was the most promiscuous person you have ever met like?

What are the dirtiest secrets that you haven’t told anybody?

Have you ever let someone look up your skirt on purpose in public?

I am sure you will be pleased to know that if you feel inclined to answer you can go anonymous. If nothing else, you can quickly understand the norms of different cultures. A stolen kiss in India has the equivalence of sex in the open air in Europe.

If you are looking for a definitive answer to a specific issue, Quora is not your place. It is a community site and you can’t be sure of the credentials of the contributors. However, whereas Wiki is about facts, Quora is about opinions. Quora is like going down to the pub and asking your mates what they think. You will always get a wide range of opinions and then you have to judge where you stand.

I have joined and to recognise this here is my first answer to a question. It has been viewed just under 200 times in the 24 hours since it was posted. It is all good publicity!

You’re a successful writer. What advice would you give writers trying to write a book?

I have read all the answers already here and there are a thousand truths you should follow. I gave up a business career, and good money, to become a writer. I now have four published books, but little more money. They are all different genres because with each I was testing myself to find my limitations and, in the process, I discovered there are a great many.

I can’t disagree with any of the advice. A good story helps. Characterisation is crucial. Editing is essential.

Some will tell you to plan everything in detail. I tried that as if I was writing one of the many consulting reports I had written. It didn’t work for me and I turned to listening to my characters and let them take me on their journey. I remember writing late one night when one of them died. They were so much a part of my life, I cried and worked no more for two days.

But that was my way.

However, the best advice I received, and the advice I pass on whenever I am asked to talk about my work and books is practice.

The only way to get better at writing, and anything else for that matter, is to practice and make sure you take every opportunity to write. If you don’t know what to write, then write a blog. It happens that my fiancée lives 3,000 miles away in Kiev and so I write a letter to her every day. I treat writing those letters as if they were going to be published. I check them, I edit them and will rewrite them if I am not happy. It’s all a bit futile as they will be translated into Russian but that is not the point. they must be perfect when they leave me.

Very, very few of us are given the skills of a Shakespeare or Hemmingway and we need to hone the little we have to improve and be better at our profession.

It is never easy, and if you want to read a great book on writing read Stephen King’s On Writing. You will find it an inspiration and will motivate you. And, while referencing Stephen King this is an anecdote he tells. Don’t let this drive you to despair.

“A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course, it was the work; isn’t it always?

How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face down on his desk): ‘Seven.’

Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’

Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

If anyone wants to read any of my novels they can be found at www.brovary.co.uk  Thank you.

 

The Seven Virtues #5 Diligence

I went to the internet to look for quotes about hard work. As you would expect, they are many, and not just from any old minor celebrity but from the good and great. Here’s the first, A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work. Colin Powell.

Without fail, they say, hard work is the key to success. We applaud the hard working and castigate the lazy.

Diligence, the supposed synonym for work, is one of the 7 virtues and the opposite to the capital sin of sloth. We all hate sloth.

Like all parents, mine extolled me to work harder with the promise of greater returns. Their pleas had limited success and they settled in a cosy contentment if I did any school homework, but they knew when it came to sports I would practice endlessly. I had a diligent gene somewhere.

Like parents, like son, and I paced the corridors outside my children’s rooms checking on them. I was very proud of Ben’s diligence until he later admitted that most of the time he was playing computer games. Another myth exploded. With Lucinda and Maddie, I finally outsourced the task by sending them to a boarding school.

It’s what we do. We encourage hard work because it is self-evidently true. The harder we work the greater the riches. Proof from Margaret Thatcher. I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but it should get you pretty near.

I went to a public school (for my American readers it means I went to a private school), the Victorian hothouses for the work ethic which we exported all over the world with our colonial Empire. It worked for a time but by the mid-1970s even the British had lost the will to work.

The rest of the world took up the mantle. The Japanese have a reputation for working harder than most nations. There are stories of offices being closed at 8 pm to stop its staff from working through the night. But, the Japanese are not now the hardest working nation. In fact, they are the 11th on the international list. At 2,193 hours per annum, the South Koreans are at work longest. To save you hunting for a calculator that is 42 hours per week, every week of the year.

But is hard work the axiom for the modern world success? Is it true?

There is an alternative mantra that the real skill is to work smarter and not harder. Again, I turned to the internet to check its popularity, saw there were 13,200,000 results and decided a case proven.

Smarter and not harder suits me fine. I will always spend a few moments looking for the easy way to do a job. Or, I will I will resort to Adam Smith and comparative advantage and find a valuable job that I can do easily to pay for someone else to do the work I find boring and hard.

However, neither of these approaches tackle the real issue.

We will always favour the hard worker over the lazy and working smarter is always good but maybe the real issue is focus. It doesn’t matter how you approach the task if it is the wrong task then you are wasting your time. Focus is the real virtue.

As we move into a society with increased automation and AI the definition and focus of our work will change. Work will start to take on many different, non-traditional forms. For example, increasingly we will see community work classed as ‘proper’ work. As societies break down we will place an increased emphasis on the work that builds stronger families and societies. Work on good parenting will be recognised as ‘proper’ work to be rewarded. Just ask Lucinda if she is working harder now looking after Bertie.

As I collected my internet quotes there was one that stood out and I wanted to include. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into the flow of my argument, but it was too good to discard and so it is here at the end. It doesn’t say that hard work is good, it doesn’t support smarter work, it just says keep going. Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

The Fastest Way to Lose Money

If there is anything that comes between Sasha and me it is money, or more accurately my lack of money. I should be comfortably off, but the truth is that this crazy decision to become a writer has changed all that. Of course, nothing is quite as simple or straightforward as that, but in essence, that’s the state of affairs.

Reasonably Sasha wants to go on holiday sometime this year. She is also keen to understand how I am going to support us when I move to Kiev in September. To be honest it is a question I am also asking myself.

This is not the place or time to go into all the peripheral reasons for my pecuniary dilemmas, but I have worked a lot over the last couple of years in traditional jobs and not been paid for my efforts. It is a significant amount of money. Right now, that would make a big difference.

No, the real issue is that I am fighting with myself every day trying to find a balance between writing and what others call work. I write every day and I have to do that to catch up on all the years when I didn’t write. I need to practice.

I was talking about this to other guests at the wedding over the weekend among whom were singers and artists. They wanted to embrace me into this artistic community and encourage me to revel in the status of an artist. I was flattered but the truth is that I am still finding the label a difficult one to wear.

When I am asked what I do I answer, writer. That’s as far as I can go. I don’t see myself as an artist. I wish I could and then I could live in a cold and bare garret with the wind whistling through every badly fitting door and window. Then I could suffer for my art and I might then be an artist.

But it is not like that. I rent a room in a cosy and beautifully maintained house in Surrey. There is nothing painful about my lifestyle.

When I made this decision I always thought the larger of all my problems would be my ability to write. Then the first book was published, then the second, third and on to the fourth. At first, blogging was hard, but it becomes easier every day although if I will think the same in a year’s time is still an open debate.

Perversely, the problem is marketing and selling the books. I write but no one buys.

It’s very difficult to get statistics on how many books are published each year but I can tell you when one of my books was first published I followed the statistics on Amazon. It was ranked in the mid 3 million. That was so depressing I have never gone back again to check.

The gist is that I have entered into one of the most competitive markets at a time when it was never easier to publish.

The problem is that any art is a selfish indulgence except when a book is read, enjoyed, brings happiness and then it becomes something far more. To talk to someone who has read and enjoyed a book I have written is worth more and feels better than anything else I have experienced.

Sasha has only known me a writer and it is a disappointment that I can’t provide properly for her but then if she had known me in Version 1, the businessman, with no time for his family, in pursuit of success and pinstripe suits, maybe she wouldn’t love me quite so much?

XXX It’s a Secret

Ben and Hannah are now away on a honeymoon in Italy. I know exactly where they are, but there are some things that just don’t need to be shared. Until she was on her way Hannah didn’t know where she was going. Ben had kept it a secret.

I have never talked to Ben about my honeymoon with Annie, but he is following a tradition.  Like Ben, I didn’t tell Annie anything until we were at the airport gate when I gave her a folder with itinerary and photographs of the places we would go on our trip.

It has made me think about honeymoon secrets. 98% of the reason I kept the honeymoon location a secret was I wanted to add to the surprise.

Up to that point I had had little to do with the wedding planning. What I did manage very successfully was to arrange to be working overseas in Tanzania until just a week before the day. Honestly, it was for tax reasons although having seen what Ben and Hannah must have gone through to arrive successfully at the day, I am grateful to HMRC. They took me right out of the loop.

My only substantive task was to arrange a honeymoon, but do it from the middle of Africa. Before you tut-tut remember these were pre-internet days. Not only did I have to make the booking for what turned into a 2-venue trip but also identify, discover and research the places I wanted to take my new and beautiful bride.

I am not saying that booking flights to Vienna, organising cars, booking a romantic room in a traditional and ancient Schloss on the banks of the Danube, and then three further nights at the Kaiserin Elisabeth one of the most beautiful hotels in the city wasn’t anything beyond my capabilities. But I say again that it was all done from either Blantyre, Malawi, or Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

I put my everything into these arrangements. I remember how I sat by the pool surrounded by travel brochures, with a glass of Malawi gin and tonic or Tanzanian Africoco, trying to manage down the options. It was not easy to make these life-changing decisions while struggling against the glare of the sizzling, African sun and making sure I stayed hydrated.

I suspect at this point I am not gaining much sympathy.

I was sure convinced that my plans were romantic. I was sure the element of surprise would add even more romance.

But, what of the other 2% that drove my secret?

After all this effort, what I couldn’t face, was Annie telling me what she really wanted was 6 nights in Magaluf (or its equivalent of the day) with days on the beach and evenings sipping all-inclusive cocktails.

We were getting married and of course, I thought I knew her. I was sure that I was taking her in the right direction, but you can never be sure. The flights had been booked and deposits paid. We were going to Vienna and the Danube, whatever. My secrecy meant that the I would hear of any disappointment while on the Ferris wheel in the Vienna Prater with an ice cream and not have it hanging over me in the weeks up to the wedding. My secrecy was minimising my risks.

I am sure that Ben and Hannah are having a wonderful time and the choices Ben made are spot on but, would I do the same again?

Probably not and I am now addressing this mostly towards Sasha. That 2% frightens me. Sasha is very sure what she wants and has very clear ideas about what makes a romantic break. Getting it wrong would not be good for my future health. But there is more. I want to do everything together and now 98% is not good enough. I want 100%. I am happy to do the work, but we will work to a common plan.

Annie and I married over 30 years ago and I promise that someday soon I will pluck up the courage to ask her if I made good decisions and learn if she would rather have been in Magaluf? In fact, I expect the phone call in 3,2,1 …..

Beethoven, Choirs, Weddings and Sex

My love of choral music, in its many forms, is long-standing and even embraces one of my more memorable sexual encounters. It was late summer. It was a Friday and the last but one night of a Proms season but also the night before an early season rugby match.

I had planned to stay home and have an early night when Fran knocked on the door of my flat. Fran was a special sort of girl. We had dated a few times but what God had given her in looks and a wonderfully toned body he had taken away in brains. I may have been a shallow youth but even I knew that our relationship would not last long. She arrived at my door because I had failed to make any weekend or Friday night arrangements.

I was torn between emotions. I wanted to listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a perennial of the last but one Prom night. I was particularly eager for the last movement, a choral piece of wonder and amazement. But Fran was with me and this was not the piece she wanted to play.

To shorten the tale we were in bed as the music played and a game came to my head and not a game to describe to Fran. The last movement has crescendos and false endings and I determined to try and ensure that the orchestra, soloists, choir, conductor, Fran and I all managed to finish as one with the anticipated climax. For my part, I can report total success.

This may seem an odd way to write my first piece after a weekend in Cambridge during which Ben and Hannah have married.and although long and tiring, it was happy beyond any description. It was special. It was a day that exuded and radiated love and in the very nicest way, sumptuous. Ben and Hannah had gone out of their way to meet every possible whim and requirement of their guests.

Other than love, there was one joyous theme of the celebration, music.

Hannah comes from a musical family. Her father is a professional musician and she has been singing at the highest level in national choirs since she was a teenager. She sings both classical pieces and in a rock band. I learnt from the speeches that Ben’s support for Hannah is diminished and far less enthusiastic when she is singing from her classical repertoire.

Many of Hannah’s friends share her musical skill and it was no surprise that during the marriage service the chapel of Trinity College was filled with the soaring sounds of supremely talented singers.

Nothing raises my spirit more than when I hear a choir in full voice. It was awe-inspiring as the sounds resonated around and above us. Those that held back a tear at the wedding were reaching for tissues with the music.

During many a car journey, I have mused about the eight songs I would take to that isolated, proverbial desert island. While there have been many changes around the fringes, the heart of my selection has always been songs performed by massed voices.

If it’s not a church choir, you may think with my rugby tradition, that a Welsh male voice choir would be my choice but for me the home of the very best is Russia. There are very many things wrong in Russia but the heritage that will never disappear is singing.

For a very long time, the ringtone on my phone was the Russian National Anthem. It is a powerful song and would still be one of my desert eight but after the invasion of Crimea, I felt uneasy walking around Kiev hoping that my phone wouldn’t ring. I changed it to the Ukrainian National Anthem which is almost as inspiring. Now all I have to worry about is a restaurant standing to attention when I am phoned.

Normally, the highlight of any Russian choir is Kalinka, the Russian folk tune and on YouTube, there are many fabulous versions. I am not going to give you all the links and, you can easily find them yourselves. If you want to search look for the Russian Red Army and the Russian Police Choirs.

But back to the wedding.

There was a lot of debate among the guests about the tune Ben and Hannah would choose for their first dance. I was told Hannah’s favourite song is Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do for You. That would have been totally fitting but more so if it had Ben’s choice. It was, however, Happy by Pharell Williams.

What they didn’t know is that my favourite version of that song is not the original but that of Russian Police Choir while being filmed on the streets of Moscow. Go check it. That really will make you happy.

These Russian choirs may sing Kalinka and other folk songs in the homeland but for the Western market, their repertoire has been extended. I encourage you all to hunt out the Russian Police Choir singing Daft Punk’s Get Lucky or even better the theme to Skyfall.

I want you to listen first before you watch. Try and imagine the singers. I’ll try not to give too much away but Skyfall was recorded on a breakfast time TV show. There are cut off shots to the presenters pretending they are in a disco! I can assure you that beautiful tunes are not matched by the pictures you will see. These are not good-looking boy bands.

If this sparks your interest and becomes your thing then hunt for the Red Army Choir sing Jingle Bells, God Bless America or best of all Sixteen Tonnes. If these don’t make you feel good, make you smile and hum as you walk off to work then I guess there is now no hope.

A sad postscript to this is that in December 2016, 64 members of the Alexandrov military music ensemble, or the Red Army Choir as we know them in the West, who were to perform for Russian troops in Syria were killed in an air accident a few minutes out of Sochi airport.

Choral music is not just for churches and classical music concerts but enhances every emotion. I wonder what Fran remembers most of our night together? Was it me or was she also revelling in Beethoven?

Wow that Vow

Today I am driving up to Cambridge for the wedding on Saturday of my son, Ben to Hannah. It goes without saying that I am excited and very happy for both of them.

Marriage changes everything while changing nothing. You don’t love someone more because you have married, but standing in the church, making your vows of love, with all your closest friends listening is a special and changing moment.

In the hubbub of a wedding, making the vows sometimes races by as one more hurdle to be jumped and its importance is not properly recognised, but it is a very special moment.

You are standing alone, possibly petrified by emotion. Maybe you have learnt your words and worry you will forget them. Or if you are repeating the vows you pray that the vicar doesn’t mumble.

Whatever, the importance of that special moment can be lost.

It is never easy to tell a partner, for the first time, of your love and it is so much harder to say it in public. Yet that is what we do at a wedding.

There are many ways of saying, I do and with this ring, I thee wed. I went on the internet to try and find what others have done. As you can imagine there are all sorts of varieties from the traditionally religious, through the sentimental to the simply whacky.

Here are some of the more unusual ones I have found.

I liked the simple ordinariness of this:

So, I promise you:

to always laugh with you and to never go to bed angry.

to comfort you in times of sorrow, including rough Buckeye, BlueJacket, and Bengals seasons.

to always listen to what you have to say, even when we don’t see eye to eye, and

to remember love is saying ‘I feel differently’ instead of ‘you’re wrong’.

There is a certain humour in the conclusion to this:

to love and to cherish until death or zombies do you part?

This is less of a set of wedding vows and more the outcome of Marriage Counselling

I promise to always leave the lights on in the bathroom

I promise to mysteriously take three hours to make a simple omelette

I promise to create a life for us of unexpected and strange adventures

I promise that I will love you

I pledge to listen to your advice, and occasionally take it

I pledge to never keep score… even if I’m totally winning

I pledge to always admire your huge, strong, kind and determined heart

I pledge that I will love you

And these might be more likely heard in the pub than a church

Before these nutter’s assembled; I take this strumpet, to be my wife, my friend, my lover, my hot water bottle, my companion in life, my enabler in trouble and my poster of bail. I will care for and protect you, nurture you and support you, and tell you when you are being a numpty and I adore everything about you

As you can imagine wedding vows are made in a thousand different ways but what is consistent is the public statement of love and it pleases me that couples now spend more time finding their own words reflecting their love.

With these daily essays, I now live my life more publicly than most people. Therefore, in the weekend spirit of love, I think it is the right time to make public words recently written in a letter to Sasha. You never know, one day I may be saying them aloud, with all our friends around us.

Sasha, I will love and cherish you, today, tomorrow, and forever, I pledge my life to you. I promise to love you and only you. You are the Alpha and Omega of my life. You are its beginning and end. Although our lives may change like the seasons, I will love you. Without condition, I give you my heart, soul, and body.

I will bring laughter to your life, and make you happy, I will bring you joy.

I will be by your side and I will be your faithful partner. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your family will be my family. I will look after and protect you for all time, without end.

I will be your companion and best friend.  I celebrate the strength we have when we are united as one. 

I have a passion for life and I promise you a life of passion.

But back tomorrow’s big day. We need to concentrate on Ben and Hannah.

I don’t know the planned readings, but I would not be surprised to hear the following beautiful words from 1 Corinthians. Really, you could do no better than read them every night.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails

Ben and Hannah, however you make your vows, and I suspect it will be none of the above, I wish you both a wonderful and happy life together and forever.

About Writing

Do you ever look at Quora? If not, then let me tell you about it. It is a free, user-driven Q&A site on the internet. Users can pose a question and readers reply with their thoughts and observations on the World. Sometimes there are sensible questions, often they are very silly.

Is England a totalitarian State?  was an example that hit my email this morning. As you can see, often, it says far more about the questioner, but I am surprised how many gain serious answers.

I was amused by answers to the question, are British people in any danger if they visit the Republic of Ireland?  There was a consensus of answers that danger is only around the corner in Dublin where locals are totally fed up with stag night revellers.

Always under discussion as a core topic is writing. There are many questions on how to start or write the first book with something like I want to write a book this year, what should I do first?

The advice is worthy and always covers the range from, just start writing and blag it through to recommendations to plan everything in detail.

But all make it clear that whether you call it a theme, purpose or main character’s motivation first you must have an idea.

There are two things that I have to do every day. One is writing this essay and the second is write a letter to Sasha and so twice every day I face this problem of coming up with an idea. Where do I start?

I know that there are three different learning techniques

  • Listening learners heard their mother, believed the information, and never touched a stove.
  • Seeing learners watched their brother touch the stove, and never touched it.
  • Experience learners touched the stove; but only once!

President Reagan with his film and TV background was an extreme seeing learner and it was reported that all his briefings were put onto a DVD, so he could watch them on the television. Probably an exaggeration just as much as President Trump is getting all his briefings through the Muppet Show.

Most of us use a mixture of all three but have a preference towards one or the others.

I can remember conversations far better than I remember the written word. I can recall what someone has said to me many years ago, and I do it by remembering the situation and the event. I can recall the room, the people around us, my mood and then the words come back to me.

This is how I write. I imagine the scene. I can see the everything as if it was a film set and I am watching a movie and can hear all the conversation. My task is only to try and describe the scene. Sometimes I do this well but never as well as I want. Films start with a book or a script and then become action. My world is the other way around. I start with the film and have to turn it into words.

When I write to Sasha I imagine her sitting in a café, sipping a mid-morning coffee, and reading my letter. I can see what she is wearing, how she is sitting and even the way she lifts the cup to drink. I have this perfect picture in my mind. I write to make her mood better so that when she goes back to work she feels happy and empowered.

But back to Quora and how to write a book. I never post an answer. Although I am a writer I can’t class myself as a successful writer as I don’t sell millions of books. I know that advice is only as valuable the price you have paid for it.

If I were to answer I would say that you need to close your eyes and dream. You need to see the scene before you can describe it. You need to watch the movie of your characters and describe it.

It has always been like this for me. You may say I’m a dreamer. When you call me a daydreamer that is the truth but, I’m not the only one

43% Human

It used to be said that you are what you eat, but that is old hat. Now it is much more, you are what eats you. I’d better explain. You think you are human. You know you have some dormant genes but still, you are homo-sapiens. That’s what you thought but you are wrong.

The latest science says that only 43% of what you are carrying around are human cells. The balance, the other 57% include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea. Scrub yourself as hard as you dare, shower three times a day and it won’t change. They are in every pore, organ, and corner with most living (if that is a definition of what they do) in the depths of your gut.

Let’s be clear. When you go to your doctor and he asks how much you weigh you are not allowed to divide what was showing on the scales by two. You can’t say I weigh 7 stones and all these microbes weigh another 7. Without them, you wouldn’t function at all well.

Here’s a rather freaky experiment that has been carried out. First, you have to raise some mice in ultra-sterile conditions so that they are almost microbe-free. Then you take some microbes from larger people (political correctness means I can’t say fat) and you put them in the gut of mouse. Then you inject some microbes from thin people. Lo and behold one group of mice get fat and the others thinner!

Reading the BBC website, if we add all the genes of the microbiome (that is what the collection of everything we have), then to the 20,000 human genes you can add somewhere between another 2 and 20 million.

Prof Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist from Caltech, argues: ‘We don’t have just one genome, the genes of our microbiome present essentially a second genome which augments the activity of our own. What makes us human is, in my opinion, the combination of our own DNA, plus the DNA of our gut microbes.’

Science is rapidly uncovering the role the microbiome plays in digestion, regulating the immune system, protecting against disease, and manufacturing vital vitamins. We are symbiotic with these little creatures.

However, with antibiotics and vaccines, we have spent much of the last 100 years trying to kill the worst of the microbiome such as smallpox, and tuberculosis. There is a real concern among scientists that we have also killed off some of the good guys. The changes in our microbiome are being linked to diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson’s, and even depression and autism. It is also being considered as a treatment for obesity.

Prof Knight who performed those experiments on mice said, ‘This is pretty amazing right, but the question now is will this be translatable to humans.’

Well, the answer is probably, yes. I know that similar fat reducing experiments have been carried out on humans with the same results.

Faecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as a stool transplant is the process of transplanting faecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has regulated human faeces as an experimental drug since 2013.

Back to the BBC and Dr Trevor Lawley at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. He is trying to grow the whole microbiome from healthy patients and those who are ill. ‘In a diseased state there could be bugs missing, for example, the concept is to reintroduce those.’

Some researchers think that monitoring our microbiome will soon become a daily event that provides a goldmine of information about our health. Prof Knight said: ‘It’s incredible to think each teaspoon of your stool contains more data in the DNA of those microbes than it would take literally a tonne of DVDs to store. At the moment every time you’re taking one of those data dumps as it were, you’re just flushing that information away. Part of our vision is, in the not too distant future, where as soon as you flush it’ll do some kind of instant read-out and tells you are you going in a good direction or a bad direction. That I think is going to be really transformative.

That will make going to the toilet a more interesting experience and all those men that like to read on the loo will be able to put the newspaper aside for their health check print out.

Last week, after a series of CT scans I was signed off by my Gastroenterologist, Dr Youd. We took the opportunity to talk generally about gastro problems and the range of solutions. Dr Youd was very clear. Many problems are often reflected in stomach and gut problems and more interestingly the cures and solutions are varied.

After many prodding and probing examinations, my solution was radical but simple. Now I eat a highly restricted, gluten and many other things free, diet. Basically, my microbiome has become messed up, and now just can’t cope and is intolerant to a varied diet. Do I miss some foods? Of course, I do but I miss the food variety far less than the continual stomach ache.

We read about personalised cures with medicine tailored for our specific gene set. That will have tremendous benefits. However, as someone always willing to match my money with my mouth if I was to take a £5 bet I think that understanding the microbiome and being able to manipulate it, will give up many more significant benefits than tailored gene therapy.

And, as I want to win my bet, if there any researchers reading this then know that I am up for a new and different influx of microbes. My good ones have gone walkabout and I want some new ones.

If that means that end up being only 42% human, then so be it.

Don’t Knock History

Recently, I listened to a BBC radio programme, The Long View, which compared the Facebook Cambridge Analytica data row with Luther’s rejection of Purgatory and a loss of trust in the Church in pre-Reformation Europe. It was another reminder that even though technology and society have changed, and the world we inhabit today would be unrecognisable to Luther, nothing much changes.

The world goes round and comes around.

My days at school were a long time ago. I had a scholarship to Dulwich and streaming started very early. By the time I was thirteen already I was starting to choose the subjects I wanted to study. Quickly, I was moving towards the sciences and dropping the arts.

By sixteen my study was all formula and electrons. The most words I ever wrote in homework or exams were, therefore or and so, linking pieces of algebra in a mathematical proof.

These early decisions were based mostly on comparative abilities. I have a logical, mathematical brain and the choice was easy, and I rejected any option that required writing an essay. It was the same at University where I managed to take an economics degree without one essay. It wasn’t just that I was better at maths. I had no English skills.

Feel free to sit back for a moment and pen your email noting that nothing much has changed.

But it wasn’t just ability, it was also interest. I had no interest in literature or history. I didn’t think studying history had any benefit. I argued we live in a very different world. What’s the point in looking backwards? I was arguing for mindfulness in days before it was even thought about. Live in the present and look forward was my mantra. Studying history was an indulgence. It can teach us, nothing.

I have changed my mind.

Yesterday I drew the comparison between President Trump’s trade actions against China and Alexander Hamilton who was the original 18th-century American proponent of tariffs and protectionism. It wasn’t careful planning on my part, but it is a useful juxtaposition of thoughts. We have seen the effects of trade wars and we can predict reactions.

Of course, the technology changes but the world is driven by human behaviour and that is unchanging. The drives for power, love, security, and safety will always persist. That is why we need to study history.

Now I enjoy mentoring young staff and sharing my experiences. I have been in a similar situation and experienced the ups and downs and the vagaries of life and work. I learnt from my peer’s experiences and it is invaluable.

History does repeat itself. Empires rise and then fail. It is never exactly the same but the lessons for the future are in our past. Studying the past means that we can change.

Isaac Newton said, ‘if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,’ Even the great have to rely on the past.

This is a little aside. About a year ago I met many of my old school friends. I was talking to Vivian Bazalgette and he pointed out one particular oddity of life. He was on the arts side of the school and I was a scientist. He went to Cambridge and, I think, read history. Now he is the Chief Investment Officer at one of the largest pension funds. He is working in one of the most numerate of professions, while I have moved on to become a writer. Change is in us all.

The USA: Historically Protectionist

America is the bastion of free trade. It is the heart of cowboy, buccaneering, capitalism. It is what the Right-wing love about America.

It may be what they like to love but it is wrong. That’s right, wrong.

The major part of American history is protectionist. What President Trump is doing now with his new trade war against China, and for that matter, almost every other country is a continuation of US policy since its very earliest years.

You will probably have heard of Adam Smith the Scottish economist, philosopher, author, moral philosopher, and a pioneer of political economy. You will probably also know Smith as the original exponent of free trade. Free trade is the opposite of protectionism.

During the Industrial Revolution, Britain embraced free trade and Smith’s laissez-faire economics, and via the British Empire, used its power to spread a broadly liberal economic model around the world. It was characterised by open markets and relatively barrier-free domestic and international trade.

But it was also colonial economics that suited Britain’s new industrially revolutionised economy. But we will come to that.

At Mount Rushmore, there are sculptures of the heads of four United States presidents. There are good arguments that all were protectionists, but we need to start with the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, George Washington.

Smith died in 1790 and 1791 is the next important date. Alexander Hamilton served as the first US Secretary of the Treasury. You will know what Hamilton looks like. It is his portrait on the US $10 bill.

Hamilton was with Washington during the War. He recognised that there was very limited production capacity to manufacture weapons. The British were restricting growth and he feared that they would stay as the leading manufacturer and condemn the US to a bits and pieces producer.

Come 1791 this is what Hamilton said:

The superiority antecedently enjoyed by nations who have preoccupied and perfected a branch of industry ….

To be honest, he goes on a bit, but the outcome was he came up with a dozen or so measures which included, tariffs, export subsidies, and even modern ideas such as R&D tax credits and subsidies. These were all in his Report on Manufactures, submitted to Congress in 1791. That was the start of American protectionism.

This where we can start to take a long view of history. With the war finished American tariffs rose to 40% while the British were dumping manufactured goods into the US to deliberately asphyxiate American manufacturing.

By 1847 Lincoln, best known for fighting slavery also said: Give us a protective tariff, and we will have the greatest nation on earth.

As the century progressed Karl Marx favoured free trade because he believed in its damaging potential to capitalism. In January 1848 he delivered a speech at the Democratic Association of Brussels, titled On the Question of Free Trade.

It took until the 1960s and the cold war for the change in American policy as they attempt to tie in allies into its anti-Soviet stand. They encouraged open US trade, building an enormous deficit.  It was such a good policy that it led to the downfall of a Soviet empire.

But, now we go full circle.

The core of any Brexit success will come down to the ability to strike free trade agreements around the world at a time Trump has started a trade war with China and all his Western allies, reverting the US to type.

We’re doing things for this country that should have been done for many, many years,” the President said before signing a memorandum setting in motion the trade actions.

Is free trade an important issue in a world where there is so much blatant aggressive behaviour between nations? Should we care? Yes, and it most certainly is because countries that trade openly are likely to be both richer and less likely to fight.

And so, we get back to Adam Smith, the original 18th-century proponent of free trade.

There is a lot of research that confirms the benefits Smith suggested. I have chosen one of many from the internet (www.beingclassicallyliberal.liberty.me/5-good-reasons-to-support-free-trade)  because it is supported with studies. It makes the following assertions:

  • Trade boosts economic growth and reduces poverty.
  • Trade reduces unemployment.
  • Trade increases compliance with labour standards.
  • Trade reduces the likelihood of war.
  • Trade makes increases life expectancy and reduces infant mortality.

But let’s be just a little more parochial. According to contemporary reports, The White House expects the new taxes, which could reach up to 1,300 specific imports, will have a “minimal impact” on consumers.

There is no way to impose $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports without it having a negative impact on American consumers. Make no mistake, these tariffs may be aimed at China, but the bill will be charged to American consumers who will pay more at the checkout for the items they shop for every day,” said Hun Quach, vice president for international trade at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

And for the investing class, this was a Reuters headline from March 22nd: Stocks tumble to worst day in six weeks after Trump tariff action

Again, it looks like I am out on a limb and disagree with President Trump.

Time will tell.

Just off for an Orgasm

I never know where I am going to get my inspiration. Some days it is OK to ask me and on others, it is probably best just to accept it and let it be. Today is one of those.

Thursday, June 21, 2018, is World Orgasm Day. Yes, you read that right.  The website, globalorgasm.org, tells me that on each and every day the men and women of the world have over 2.5 billion orgasms. That’s over 100 million orgasms per hour, every hour or 1.5 million per minute.

What I find really interesting about that statistic is the statistic itself. I wonder how anyone knows?

When I was interviewing clever people at C&L one of my favourite questions was: approximate how many litres of orange juice is drunk every morning in the UK? I also asked them to talk me through their thoughts as they were working it out. But this is on a whole different scale.

Think about it and I will go and make a coffee while you work out your answer.

I am quite useful at maths and arithmetic and as I have a degree in statistics I know how to manipulate data to fulfil Mark Twain’s edict that there are, lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I know how to confuse you with averages, means, medians and correlations. But my favourite trick is the confusion that correlated data is not necessarily causal. Simply said just because two pieces of data move in the same direction it doesn’t mean that one is causing the other. Can you see how easy it is to confuse the unsuspecting?

I can show you a graph that shows that divorce rates in Maine correlate with the US per capita consumption of margarine.  But it doesn’t mean that eating less margarine has caused the divorce rate to drop. Nor is it the other way around that the threat of having to eat margarine has caused couples to stay together?

Getting cause and effects right can be more than a statistical anomaly and humorous aside. Sometimes it is very serious.

This is an example from Wiki.

For example, in a widely studied case, numerous epidemiological studies showed that women taking combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) also had a lower-than-average incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD), leading doctors to propose that HRT was protective against CHD.

But randomized controlled trials showed that HRT caused a small but statistically significant increase in the risk of CHD.

Re-analysis of the data from the epidemiological studies showed that women undertaking HRT were more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups (ABC1), with better-than-average diet and exercise regimens.

The use of HRT and decreased incidence of coronary heart disease were coincident effects of a common cause (i.e. the benefits associated with a higher socioeconomic status), rather than a direct cause and effect, as had been supposed

We use data all the time but with the rise in fake news, data can sometimes be misplaced as well as misused.

There is a website that purports to use data to debunk myths (http://www.cracked.com/pictofacts-794-19-commonly-held-beliefs-debunked-with-statistics/). Here is one example.

Statement: Mexican immigration into the US is higher than ever and we should build a wall? Right?  Wrong! The actual number of Mexican immigrants is at its lowest since 1990. In fact, more Mexicans have returned than entered since 2000.

Whenever I can, I double check statistics I have used but this time I am in a hurry and so I have to leave it as it is. This time you will just have to believe me. Are you going to tell your friends this over lunch or should you be a bit more careful about who and what you believe?

Meanwhile, while you check that Mexican data for both me and President Trump, estimate the orange juice statistics, I am going to think about how they estimated that 1.5 million people per minute are having an orgasm right now.

Have a good night!

Clean Meat – the New Science

Bacon sandwich for breakfast? Not for me because I don’t eat meat.  It was a conspiracy of circumstances that took me to vegetarianism.

I had already stopped eating red meats. I didn’t care for it but I loved the trimmings of mint sauce and horseradish and when I realised I could still have those and not the meat, there was a solution, and I ‘came out’.

Telling someone, for the first time, I was a vegetarian, wasn’t easy. I felt the need to explain how I had done some work as a consultant in an abattoir and seen meat rendered, and really, I was a pescatarian because I still eat fish and etc.

The final push over the edge was a close vegetarian friend who just said, ‘why not?’ and that was it.

Since then I haven’t eaten any red meat. Now, I don’t like the texture. Maybe I have had an odd bacon sandwich and the very occasional piece of chicken. Over these 15 years or so there have been a few, but rare days when I have strayed and without guilt except to those friends who went out of their way to make sure that there was always a vegetarian option for me.

I might have said relapse but that would imply an illness or fighting an addiction. It is not like that. I just have lots of small, but no overriding reasons not to eat meat.

I don’t have a strong ethical basis for my vegetarianism. I don’t proselytise my cause and I am even happy to cook meat for my friends. I am not too concerned about the volumes of CO2 growing to dangerous levels because of farting cows. Nor am I a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). I like animals, I like the environment, but I also understand the hierarchy of the food chain.

The thing about meat is that it is a great source of protein which is rather important in our diets. I know there is a wider world protein problem.

Insects have been promoted as a solution. When I was in Malawi, there was a week when the larva of an insect blossoms into what to me is a large, flying pest. They arrived as a horde, attracted by the sulphur of the street lights and the neon in the shops. Malawians would come out and scoop up handfuls and, there is no easy or nice way to say this, eat them al fresco and al dente.

Once I owned a Malawian cookbook which had recipes for all sorts of insects, some roasted or others as a dessert covered in chocolate. One day this may be a solution but, insects have certain yuck overtone.

Now, modern science has another solution and it is a Clean Meat. You may not have yet heard about it so let me explain.

Don’t be confused by Clean Eating. That is very different and let’s get that out of the way. Clean Eating is not another spin on the idea of eating more or less of specific food groups such as carbs or protein but the idea is to avoid processed foods and only eat ‘real’ foods. Simply, clean eating is a diet but there is a tenuous link to Clean Meat.

The most widely read introduction to Clean Meat is a book written by Paul Shapiro and this is the from the book’s website:

Since the dawn of Homo sapiens some quarter million years ago, animals have satiated our species’ desire for meat. But with our growing population and global demand for animal products increasing, raising such huge numbers of animals for food poses serious challenges.

But…what if we could have our meat and eat it too? Enter clean meat.

Just as we need clean energy to compete with fossil fuels, clean meat is poised to become a competitor of factory farms. Clean meat isn’t an alternative to meat; it’s real, actual meat grown (or brewed!) from animal cells, as well as other clean animal products that ditch animal cells altogether and,  are simply built from the molecule up.

Yes, you read that right. Clean Meat is about scientists growing or brewing (chose your own verb) meat in vast vats.

It is real meat in every sense except that the cow, pig, chicken doesn’t die and only shares a cell or two as the kickstart for the process. Simply, the cells are taken from the animal and fed with proteins in the vat. They grow and grow eventually becoming your burger or steak.

Don’t ask me if we call this a processed food. I have no idea. It’s either 100% processed or 100% real. It doesn’t seem to me there is a halfway house.

There are about half a dozen companies in the US spending fortunes looking to be the first to the consumer market and, whoever succeeds will become very rich.

So far, they have managed something more akin to mince than the juicy steak, but that is not far away. The first laboratory-grown chicken nuggets, from American company Just, should be on limited sale later this year.

Rather than obtaining meat from animals raised on environmentally destructive factory farms and slaughtered in filthy slaughterhouses, clean meat is produced by taking a small sample of animal cells and replicating them in a culture outside of the animal. The resulting product is 100 percent real meat, but without the antibiotics, E. coli, salmonella, or waste contamination – all of which come standard in conventional meat production.( CleanMeat.org)

It may not be long until we sit down to breakfast with a bacon sandwich while the progenitor Peppa Pig, watches us from its mud bath on the farm or we have our lunchtime steak sandwich with Daisy mooing outside the window.

We are always saying that children don’t know enough about farming and where their foods come from. Soon it may be that unless they have an advanced science degree that will not change

Enjoy your lunch.

A High Octane Sport

I managed to let the start of the Formula 1 season, in Australia a couple of weeks ago, pass without mention but with the second race in Bahrain now just a few days away, it is time to pitch in.

For a long time, I have been a fan of F1 and have been two races, both at Silverstone. In my twenties, I was invited to one by Geraldine, the marketing manager of McLaren who was then my girlfriend. That contact gave me access to drivers and the after-race parties. The second time was when I was working for ICI, then sponsors of the Williams team, and additionally that gave me pit access. I still remember standing next to Sir Frank Williams during the race, an unheard of privilege in today’s pit access rules.

Both these experiences were exceptional giving me everything you get on television plus a lot more. We had the television pictures, race timing boards, all around access and a great live view on the corner just before the start-finish line.

I haven’t gone to a race since. The involvement will never be the same, but it is a sport I always want to watch.

F1 is a fascinating sport. It has more data than any other. It is almost literally a high-octane sport. We will never know if Fangio was a faster driver than Hamilton or even if Lewis is faster than Seb. How much is the car and how much is the driver? There have been thousands of journalist’s column inches on that topic.

From the outside, we only see the culmination of all the effort on a race weekend and only imagine what has been necessary to get a car to the chequered flag. It is a sport of tiny margins, often small factions of a second and if ever the phrase ‘marginal improvements’ meant anything it is here.

In my way, I have wondered what it would be like to be in the heart of an F1 team and once spent a very happy weekend in my own imagination having a conversation with an F1 team principal. Someday I may document it.

The driver wants to win the Driver’s Championship but when you hear the team principal talk they are more concerned about the Constructor’s Championship. For them, the effort of the team is more important and properly recognised.

But while we may see the improvement on the track, I have always wondered if there are the same opportunities in the way the business is managed and run because all my experience says there must be opportunities. Just like a car, nothing is perfect.

While I was thinking about this I found an article on the BBC website by Andrew Benson, written last year talking about Ferrari’s resurgence, at least in the first three races of 2017.

From a relative failure over 2015 and 2016 they had won two of the first three races, were second in the other and leading the early championship table.

How Ferrari gave Sebastian Vettel the chance to beat Lewis Hamilton. What has happened behind the scenes? Andrew Benson; BBC Chief F1 Writer (Benson, 2017)

Hard work is one thing. But all F1 teams work hard. Ferrari were working hard last year – and in 2014, when they also failed to win a race.

The explanation for the turnaround is more complex than that, and it starts a year or so ago, in the first difficult months of Ferrari’s 2016.

Ferrari were confident heading into last year that they had further closed the gap on Mercedes after a 2015 in which Vettel won three races. The team bosses told president Sergio Marchionne as much, and he came out before the season started and said he expected Ferrari to be absolutely competitive from the off.

The problems started when they were not. Marchionne is an uncompromising Italian-Canadian businessman with a reputation as a hard man with colourful language. His nickname is “the jumpered assassin”. He was not happy, and he wanted to know why performance was not what had been promised.

He began a full investigation into how things worked at Ferrari’s Maranello factory. He personally interviewed many staff, not just the bosses, wanted to know their thoughts on why Ferrari could not compete with the best British-based teams, and asked for an explanation about why they had a reputation for lack of imagination and innovation in F1 design.

Marchionne decided the design department needed to be restructured, to free up some of the more creative minds and make a less top-down structure.

He identified, he has said, about 20 key “high-potential individuals” to promote and harness. Management was reorganised; the format of meetings, too.

The idea was to make design more flexible, to ensure all ideas were discussed and make the group more open to suggestions. And to encourage a greater sense of ownership and responsibility among a much wider array of people, to avoid the usual Ferrari problem of people keeping their heads down so they could not be blamed for failure.

At the same time, Ferrari undertook an analysis of their weaknesses and concluded three main issues – aerodynamics, especially on circuits that require efficiency, such as Barcelona and Silverstone; tyre management; and gearbox fragility.

That done, they had a redefined baseline focus for 2017.

Ferrari was leading for much of the season. The team was working at its very best, but then both Vittel and the team started to make mistakes. The team imploded, and Hamilton went on to win the championship.

That is sport. You can train, practice, rehearse and still, not everything goes to plan. That is why this weekend in Bahrain I will again be watching for which of Lewis, Seb, Kimi or Max comes out on top.

Let the Children Live

I spent much of Easter with Lucinda and the mighty Bertie and it has been great fun but it is good to be back writing. Bertie is now nearly 15 months old and I am still astonished at the rate at which young children grow and learn.

In the last month, Bertie has learnt to walk, verbalising is still a way off but understanding and comprehension are getting better every day. With the rights of grandfathers at the fore, I have recently taught him to high five. We did it once and he has remembered. Ask him to get his boots to go for a walk in the garden and off he will waddle, in the way young children still wearing a nappy do.

Lucinda called her Grandfather, Grumps and she has decided that the name should become a family tradition. So, when Bertie is asked to give something to Grumps he knows where to go.

Of course, there is something special about Bertie, but he is special because he is my grandson but around the world, the same miracle is happening a million times. Not least in Reading where Sasha’s sister Ann has a young son, Michael, who coincidentally was born on the same day and just a matter of hours before Bertie.

Young children are sponges: watching and observing, copying, assimilating, and learning and developing all the time. They also do a good line in sleeping which makes me jealous. I still think a quick nap at lunchtime is a good idea.

As we get older, not only don’t we get as much chance to sleep but nor do we have the same biological growth in our brains. But, this is not just about biology. For so many age is an excuse to be lazy, to stop being interested, to stop learning, and to stop being inquisitive.

What makes our cosy inaction more depressing is that for millions of children across the world their earliest years are harder than anything you could imagine.

I wanted to know how many children don’t have Bertie’s opportunities. Working across 190 countries and territories, UNICEF defends the rights of children and young people, and their website gave me the answer.

Take one example, out of many, Yemen. This is UNICEF.

SANA’A, 27 March 2018– Nearly half a million children have dropped out of school since the 2015 escalation of conflict in Yemen, bringing the total number of out-of-school children to 2 million, according to a UNICEF assessment released today.  Meanwhile, almost three-quarters of public school teachers have not been paid their salaries in over a year, putting the education of an additional 4.5 million children at grave risk.

“An entire generation of children in Yemen faces a bleak future because of limited or no access to education,” said Meritxell Relaño, UNICEF Representative in Yemen. “Even those who remain in school are not getting the quality education they need.”

It is not just Yemen. Look at the UNICEF website and you can take your pick of conflicts or natural disasters affecting children. These are headlines from their press releases in March 2018.

  • Multiple earthquakes in Papua New Guinea leave children traumatized.
  • Rohingya refugee crisis: Children trapped in limbo and deprived of their basic rights
  • Statement on the release of girls abducted from a school in Dapchi by Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF Representative in Nigeria
  • Taps run dry for 2 million people as fighting intensifies in Aleppo
  • Risking it all to escape gang violence and poverty. UNICEF reports on the harrowing journey of refugee and migrant children from Central America

The problem we have is that this, and by this I mean the plight of millions of children being caught in the middle of grown-up’s fights, is such frequent news that we tend not to see it as it is. We have become complacent.

I am not a religious person and have no faith worthy of a regular Church visit but the New Testament story of Jesus has some good words about children: Jesus said, “Let the little children come, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these

When I was bringing up Lucinda, a good friend, Alan McNab always said that we should treat and think of children as young adults. We should show them respect, respect their opinions and recognise their individual needs. In a western, civilised society he was right, but for the rest of the world, think of them only as vulnerable children whose needs are very simple and basic: food, water, loving parents, an education and safety. If you don’t they will never become adults.

I asked a question a few paragraphs ago. Let me try and answer it.

One in every nine children is raised in a conflict zone, according to a UNICEF report released in 2016. Two hundred and fifty million young people are living in war zones and with the number of people fleeing these regions at its highest since World War II, every second refugee is a child.

In 2015 alone, some 75 million children were born into conflict zones, said the report. What complicates matters, the UN agency said, is that on top of the risks to health and safety, regional violence blocks access to education.

Think about it when you next see a group of children playing in your local park. One in nine children is raised in a conflict zone. That can mean bombings, living in a dark basement, no school, no medical assistance, no parents, abduction, or rape and sexual molestations.

If that doesn’t stop your complacency, if that doesn’t make you want to do something, if that doesn’t trigger some activity in those unused brain cells, then little else will.

A Short Break

I am going to take a short Easter break and will be back again on Tuesday and already I have many topics in mind.

On a personal front, the highlight in April will be Ben and Hannah’s marriage in Cambridge. Meanwhile, I will be planning for my next trip to Kiev to be with Sasha. On this visit, I have decided to explore and look for work opportunities.

When I was in Dubai some of my most enjoyable work was coaching and mentoring senior managers. I worked with all nationalities. Kiwis, Brits and Eneratii were clients. It was a mixture of psychologist, nanny, business expert, and most of all trusted friend.

Normally we would meet for an hour or two in their office but the best sessions always seemed to be when we met for an alfresco lunch to chew over more than the cud.

My idea in Kiev is to offer a similar service added to which is the opportunity for my client to practice their business English. Sasha is already on the case and is bending her father’s ear for contacts.

The state of the world offers many thoughts on topics over the summer.

President Trump will offer his usual mixture of humour at the way he manages the White House and runs America tinged with total global fear as he sets off to meet the demonic leader of North Korea.

Mueller may have a say during the summer on the way the West is run and I expect that Stormy may soon be on his agenda. Remember Clinton’s problems started with a land deal in Arkansas and finished unhappily (if that is the right phrase) with Monica on her knees.

Regular readers will know that I have huge respect for the past sacrifices of Russia during the war but little for their President, Putin. I think he is a bully and I expect a strong reaction to his embassies being denuded of all their spies. Guns are not today’s weapon of choice and it is all cyber and psyops. But we are at war with Russia and as every action has to be responded to with more powerful retaliation it is only a short step to military action. Expect scuffles around the world and Putin tickling and testing Nato’s underbelly in the East.

On a more trivial level, we have the World Cup of football starting in June with the added piquancy that it is being held in Russia. Finally, I want to finish the feature on the seven virtues to match the seven sins.

But all of this is for the late Spring and Summer. There will be much to talk about and it will all start again next week.

Until then, I wish you all a very happy Easter break and if you have a few days holiday I hope the sun shines for you.

It’s Raining. It must be Easter

I envied the IT manager for a company I worked with in Dubai. He was an Indian Christian living in a Muslim country. He would take every holiday going from Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, though Easter and onto Ramadan.

This up and coming weekend is Easter. A four-day holiday which, at least for the British will again be celebrated by rain. At least, as one forecaster said, it won’t snow. Well, it might as well snow. We have only just got over Christmas. It feels like winter and it was only last week that the season was officially reclassified as Spring.

We accept that Easter moves around but this isn’t the earliest date. I know you won’t remember but in 1761 Easter fell on March 22nd but among more recent history you may recall the Easter Sunday of March 23rd in 2008.

On the other hand, in 2000 we had to wait until April 23rd. If you thought that was a plan to encourage a sunny day, you were wrong. It didn’t lead to bright brilliant days of picnics and decorating the May Pole. Showers affected many parts of the British Isles during the day, these being thundery over W and N England, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of SE Scotland during the afternoon and evening.

How did this all happen? The First Council of Nicea, a council of Christian bishops convened unsurprisingly in Nicea by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325AD, fixed Easter and a whole load of other Christian stuff.

They were a properly organised and busy bunch who sorted out:

  • The Arian question;
  • The celebration of Passover;
  • The Meletian schism;
  • The Father and Son one in purpose or in person;
  • The baptism of heretics;
  • The status of the lapsed in the persecution under Licinius.

To be honest, I have no idea what most of this was all about, but Maddie will have it all her fingertips and if anyone is interested I will pass on your questions to her for an answer.

It looks like quite a meaty agenda, and the Council worked on it for a month and out of the 300 plus delegates, everything was unanimously agreed. Maybe we also need to research how they organised themselves to do so much in such a short timescale. The EC and other such might learn something.

The bishops in Nicea decided that Easter Sunday, the anniversary of Christ’s resurrection, would always be on the first Sunday following the paschal full moon. That means the next full moon after the spring equinox.

Christmas Day is a fixed date, 25th December but Easter must always occur on a Sunday because that was the day of Christ’s Resurrection, and so the date is always moving around

The reason for choosing the paschal full moon is that it’s the date of Passover in the Jewish calendar, and the Last Supper (Holy Thursday) occurred on the Passover. Therefore, Easter is the Sunday after Passover.

However, the paschal full moon can be on different days in different time zones and that would produce variations on Easter. Realising this, the Church decided that the full moon is always determined to be the 14th day of the lunar month. The Church also fixed the spring equinox as March 21.

Have you got all that? Basically, Easter is fixed around the Jewish festival of Passover.

It’s a total mess. No one knows what’s happening. When does the school terms finish? Getting married at Easter, 2020? Who knows what dates to put in the diary.

I just hope that you don’t live in the UK and pray at a Coptic Church. The Coptic and Orthodox churches, celebrate Easter based on the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar used in the West. The Eastern church also ensures Easter always falls after Passover but has a different way of calculating the date of the spring equinox. If you can wait until 2336 then Easter, in the Coptic Church will be May 10.

Don’t worry the Church of England is on the case. In 2016 The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that the date of Easter could be fixed to one day within the next ten years, hoping to end one of the longest disputes in church history. Apparently, Justin is going to phone Pope Francis and the Coptic Pope to see if we can have the festival celebrated on the same day each year across the world.

I have some advice to the Archbishop. Look at the very long-range weather forecast and find the wettest and coldest day and fix that as Easter. After all, that is what the Bishops of Nicea managed to do.

Anti-Semitism in the UK

There was a day, long ago when with other families we were all walking one bank holiday in the countryside. The sun was shining, and the children were happy and running on the narrow rural roads. I think it was Louise who asked when we arrived at the pub for a rest if I had seen the helicopter in a field. To this day I don’t know if she was teasing me because my powers of observation are notoriously poor. I could easily have walked past something as large a helicopter and not seen it.

This week a problem for the Labour party, the official parliamentary opposition, won’t go away. They have been accused of being anti-Semitic. I believe their leader Jeremy Corbyn when he says he is against all prejudice, but he needs to get a grip on his party and do something.

Europe is forever scared with right-wing anti-Semitism but from the left, it is new to me. I don’t know where it comes from but possibly it is the conspiracy theory that business, banks and capitalism are a Jewish cabal. You will need to find the anti-Semites an ask them.

It is a problem that has been rumbling under the surface for a long time. Ken Livingstone, the former MP, and Mayor of London is still under review and not kicked out of the party for very unsavoury anti-Semitic remarks. Len McCluskey, the leader of the Unite trade union, one of the largest donors to the party, talking of the allegations last autumn said it was ‘mood music’.

I am not in the Labour party. I might not care much for their political opinions, but I do care for the health of our democracy.  I don’t know if it is institutionally anti-Semitic but there is a helicopter hiding in their midst and the party leadership needs to find it and do something immediately. It is imperative for the future of the Labour party and our democracy.

However, and there is always a big however, I am not going to walk totally with the liberal left and say that I approve of every policy of the State of Israel. In fact, I disagree with quite a lot. I am walking into the mire that is anti-Zionist.

I lived in Dubai and there were a great many Palestinians working for me, and with great sadness, I used to listen to their stories of homelessness, loss, and a life without a passport. At times it was harrowing. Like many, I watched with horror as Israel bombed the children of the Gaza strip in 2014. I wanted it to stop every bit as much as I wanted the Palestinians to stop bombing Israel.

What happened in the Second World War to Jews has awful beyond comprehension. It affected not just a whole race but everyone. It was pivotal to my father’s personality. He was a young Captain in the Royal Engineers at the end of the war and was one of the first into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He never would and never could talk about it, but I know it changed him forever.

Indirectly in May 1948, the sum of all those experiences led to the acceptance of Israel as an independent State recognised by the United Nations. This wasn’t only a reaction to the horrors of the war but a continuation of attempts for resolution initiated with the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1920 creation of the British Mandate of Palestine.

I also fully understand the Israeli State’s needs to maintain security. I would be very upset if the British government stopped defending my country, however, and here we go again with another however, I do not think that that allows the Israeli government the right to annex land and make the Palestinians wandering, homeless, nomads.

I am willing to be educated in informed debate, but I am not willing to be called anti-Semite or anti-Zionist because I disagree with the Israeli Government’s policies. The Holocaust will never, ever be forgotten but there comes a time when we must move forward. Not everyone who disagrees with Israel’s actions is prejudice. I am not pro-Palestinian, nor I am pro-Jew. I am not anti-Semitic nor am I anti-Zionist, but I am pro-peace.

Hard but Fair

Last night, Annie and I had a long chat on the phone. I had been working all day and was only just home and she had had Lucinda and the mighty Bertie over for morning coffee. ‘What,’ she asked, ‘are you going to write about tomorrow?’

I wasn’t sure but ‘cheating, probably,’ I replied.

I have known Annie for over or close to 35 years and we were married for around 25 of those. I feel good about introducing her to running and then the gym, but she was never a big sports fan. For a time, Ben and I had season tickets at Crystal Palace and I only offered my ticket to Annie once. The disdain and incredulity that my offer engendered was clear. If a face could say, you go and watch the football and I will enjoy the peace, then the look I got, said it all.

This lengthy preamble is to frame my surprise at her reply to my idea for today’s topic. An already lengthy call was extended by another 10 minutes as Annie railed against Australian cricketers. Cheating Australians had become front page.

I am going to take a stab in the dark and guess that Sasha, like many others of you who have never played or followed cricket, are now scratching your head. Here is the crux of the controversy.

Simply, a bowler hurls the ball at the batter from 22 yards. The skill of the bowler is in his speed and more importantly guile in the flight by making the ball curve as it gets to the batsmen. This is called swing. Swing is enhanced when one side of the ball is much shinier than the other.

There are legal ways for the bowler to build up the shine such as rubbing it on his shirt or trousers. There are also illegal ways and that is what happened this weekend.

Australia are playing South Africa in a cricket test match and the Australian rookie, Cameron Bancroft was spotted by one of the many cameras tampering with the ball to roughen one side with some yellow tape. He knew he had been seen as he quickly stuffed the offending tape down his underpants!

In later press conferences, the captain and the leadership team admitted that it had been planned and they had coerced a new and young player to commit the felony.

It was deliberate cheating and the overflow has left the narrow confines of cricket to become the main news story.

Cheating and skulduggery are expected in business and politics and when they are uncovered there are knowing nods. When they are uncovered we can still be shocked, as with Watergate, but we are not surprised. But sport? We like to think of sport as pure and the pinnacle of human endeavour.

Like a son looking up to his hero father we are always disappointed when we discover, just like any mortal, our sportsmen have feet of clay.

It has always been so. In the marathon at the 1904 St Louis Olympic Games New Yorker Fred Lorz, was first home in 3 hours and 13 minutes. Lorz was just about to receive the gold medal when it became clear that he had covered 11 of the 26.2 miles in a car.

Canadian Ben Johnson had his world record of 9.79 seconds revoked along with his Gold Medal from the 100-metres final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. His urine samples were found to contain stanozolol, an anabolic steroid.

Anyone remember Lance Armstrong, Ukrainian fencer Boris Onischenko, Irish swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin, allegedly Tom Brady and footballer Diego Maradona? They have all been found out cheating. The list goes on and on and we could add almost anyone who plays professional football for diving to the ground to win fouls and penalties.

Why is this latest misdemeanour so different?

First, we like to think of cricket as the sport that embodies fair play. We use its lexicon to colour our daily lives. We answer difficult questions with a straight bat, we ask difficult questions by bowling him a googly, when a friend does something untoward we gossip that, it just wasn’t cricket.

Secondly, it was the Australians. Cricket is their national sport and they have a reputation for hard but fair play. It is their national characteristic. It’s not just the way they play cricket, but it is how they conduct trade, relate to the world, and entertain at parties. If an Australian gives his word, then it will happen.

It has hit at the very psyche of the nation. Malcolm Turnbull the Australian PM was on the television within 24 hours when he said,

“It seemed completely beyond belief that the Australian cricket team had been involved in cheating. After all, our cricketers are role models and cricket is synonymous with fair play. How can our team be engaged in treating (cricket) like this? It beggars belief. A lot of disappointment.

“It’s their (Cricket Australia) responsibility to deal with it but I have to say that the whole nation, who holds those who wear the baggy green up on a pedestal – about as high as you can get in Australia, certainly higher than any politician, that’s for sure – this is a shocking disappointment. It’s wrong and I look forward to Cricket Australia taking decisive action soon. I think I speak for all Australians in saying how shocked and disappointed we all are.”

As the football World Cup starts in a couple of months I know I will be back on this subject as state jingoism collides with the beautiful game. Putin will stand surveying the scene just as he did at Sochi where he was so keen for victories that Russia sponsored extensive and planned doping of athletes.

On the lists of greatest sporting cheats, the Australian cricketers and their captain will get a top 10 entry.

It will give me something to tease and rile Australian friends but in the scale of world events, it will be seen as nothing more than a passing pimple.

A Yellow Plastic Duck

I guess you have no interest in my bathing habits but, I am sorry, you are just going to have to read a little before you get to the meat in today’s sandwich.

I shower and never take a bath. It is a preference and nothing to do with saving water. I just prefer standing under a hot waterfall rather than sitting in a bath which is forever getting colder. And when Sasha reads this let me just say that sharing a hot tub is a whole different matter, and we can always share a shower. But she already knows that.

If I had a bath, just like the mighty Bertie, I would definitely float a yellow plastic duck in it, but he has an excuse. He is just one year old. Actually, Bertie has more than a single plastic duck in his bath. He has a whole flotilla of floating toys for distraction, while Lucinda washes him.

Perverse maybe, but these were my thoughts when I read this week’s news.

We have always polluted our home, our planet, but only since the industrial revolution have we successfully polluted it faster than the planet can cope and regenerate.

Did you know it rains more at weekends? That seems strange because a seven-day week is a human construct, yet it does rain more at weekends. It is because our work patterns change once every five days. We don’t commute, and factories shut down. At weekends, we shop and laze around our homes.

Our behaviour changes the weather. We impact our world.

Now, there is something far more serious than last year’s giant fat ball blocking up the London sewers. It was all over the news, but this extract is taken from CNet.

A team of scientists from The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, six universities and an aerial sensor company worked together on the ambitious study. They published the startling results Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the name given to an area of the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii where plastics of all kinds have been accumulating into one big watery junk pile. It contains everything from plastic buckets to discarded fishing nets. A new study shows the patch is bigger than previously thought and is also growing at an astounding rate.

It is now three times the size of France.

The problems with plastic have been growing and last year David Attenborough presented Blue Planet 2 to an unbelieving British audience highlighting the scale of the problem, and they listened. Causes have been espoused and after plastic shopping bags, the focus is now on those takeaway plastic cups from the likes of Costa and Starbucks but, while that is worthy it attacks the tip of the problem and is not a solution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

That requires far more extensive change.

Can I live without plastic? I can forgo take away coffee cups, but I have just had a look around the house to see how much plastic I use. Look in your fridge. Everything is wrapped in plastic. My toothbrush is plastic, the toothpaste is stored in plastic, my shampoo is in a plastic bottle etc, etc, etc. The answer to my hypothetical questions is, no.

Then another theoretical question. What would happen if I had to store all my own plastic waste and keep it for my lifetime? The probability is that I would be sleeping in the garden next to a house full of rubbish.

I am no eco-warrior, but I do try and sort the household waste, but I have little understanding of what happens to it. I am happy to put it into the right bin and watch the dustbin men take it away once a week. When I throw out old clothes I don’t think about the landfills forever growing. When I dispose of plastic I assume that it doesn’t get thrown into the sea.

I hope someone, if not me, is being responsible.

I hold up my hand and admit that my generation is the worst of the sinners and it is inappropriate for me to now shout foul and then ask everyone else to clean up my mess. But, like it or not that is exactly where we are, and we need to do something quickly. Our planet’s natural ability to regenerate and provide a climate that allows human life to exist is dependent on the oceans and is being tested to the limits.

After killing ourselves in pointless wars, polluting everywhere we go is possibly our second greatest natural ability. If we are so clever then we need to change and recognise our failings, otherwise, there may be no long-term future.

Imagine Bertie’s bath time fleet so large that he is crowded out of his own bath. Imagine that there was no room for him. That could be our future.

Oh dear, Mr Zuckerberg

The whole World is upset and even surprised at the revelations about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the 2016 US presidential campaign. At last, angry of Tunbridge Wells has a real bone to chew on. The outrage is palpable and around the world lawmakers, regulators, and the moral majorities are sharpening their knives for revenge. But, we need to take a deep breath and work our way through the issues.

1 Was there a ‘wrong’

Undoubtedly, there is a perceived moral concern about the use of our personal data on any of the social networks. In this case, the transgression occurred in 2014 when some of the Terms of Service were different.

Is what happened, illegal or just immoral? This article in the Cambridge News seems to sum it up, best. The quote is from Facebook.

Paul Grewal, VP & Deputy General Counsel for Facebook said: “In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe. He also passed that data to Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc.

Like all app developers, Kogan requested and gained access to information from people after they chose to download his app. His app, ‘thisisyourdigitallife,’ offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as ‘a research app used by psychologists.’ Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app.

In so doing, they gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it. Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules.

By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.

Facebook is arguing it was a breach of their Terms. That argument will rumble on, however, Facebook does seem to agree that the initial harvesting the personal details was within the service terms operating in 2014.

Zuckerberg today has said a “breach of trust” had occurred and as an analysis by Dave Lee, BBC North America technology reporter points out: Facebook is not prepared to take the blame for what has happened.  There is no apology to users, investors, or staff over how this incident was allowed to happen by the data policies in place at the time.

2 What did Cambridge Analytica do?

The company is accused of using the personal data of millions of Facebook users to influence how people vote. Its website says that it used personal data to sway the outcome of the US 2016 presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum. It boasts of supporting more than 100 campaigns across five continents also claiming to have helped the Orange Revolution in 2004 in Ukraine which helped bring the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

A question to the then CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, a couple of days ago asked about the democratic impact of their work, and he was asked if the activity was a distortion of democracy.

In all this debate this is the most important question and the one that will probably be overlooked. Today any considerations are being distorted by questions of the legality of the data being used.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that everything was legal and in line with the Facebook service terms.

In 2017 there was a general election in the UK and the Labour party polled far better than expected. They mobilised younger voters who presumably are greater users of social networks. It has been said that at the core of their success was their digital strategy and micro-targeting.

For the moment, put to one side the source of their data lists, and ask if this was a distortion of democracy. That argument was never raised and all I ever heard from opposition parties was a touch of envy and a promise to do better.

The Cambridge Analytica data was supposedly used to support President Trump into office. As you will know I think that he is the worst and most dangerous US President we have ever seen but I can’t support criticism of him and his campaign using all legal means possible to secure a vote.

In my opinion, Cambridge Analytica are an arrogant and overblown consultancy promising far more than they can deliver. Their claims for micro-targeting are nothing like as effective as they say. Much of it is snake oil. Later research will probably show that the cost per individual Trump vote was prohibitive.

However, the sheer mass of specific, targeted messages undoubtedly created the news agenda giving him his misogynist and racist platform.

3 Should we read all the Terms of Service?

Finally, if you use Facebook and the social networks you should have known what might happen. You have no excuse.

I have signed up on many sites and when it comes to the tick the box to confirm acceptance of the Terms and Conditions, I just tick. I want the service and I know that I can’t change the T&Cs even if I managed to read them.

There was an experiment in the UK where a free internet hub was set up in central London. To use the hub, you had to agree to the T&C. If the users had read them they would have seen that under certain conditions they would have to give up their first-born child.

The warnings have been there for years. If you tell the whole world you had a black coffee this morning to cure yet another hangover from last night binge drinking, then don’t be surprised if a potential employer spots the pattern.

I know the terms and conditions are unreadable, but no one can claim that they didn’t know. There is some help at hand. I was pointed to a website (https://tldrlegal.com/) which takes the T&C of many providers and puts them into understandable English.

Of course, in the current furore went straight to those of Facebook. Against the ‘content’ section they translate it as: Facebook can use stuff that you “post on or in connection with Facebook” that you have intellectual property rights to. Facebook loses rights to your stuff if you delete it or your account, so long as others have not shared (without later deleting) your stuff. Publishing stuff using the “Public setting” gives everyone else rights to that stuff.  

4 Some conclusions

As always it is only historians who will be able to draw any conclusions, but it is for us, now, to act.

This current issue will work itself out and the role of social media will be discussed endlessly.

Data privacy is hugely important, and the liberal elite would clamp down on every transgression, but I will say that we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Social media platforms are free, and they also do good. The Arab Spring was fuelled by Facebook and if they are so bad why do we create such a fuss about them being banned in China?

The internet is here forever, and the technologies embedded in the social media settings and the cookies on our computer do have advantages. I know that if I give anything for free then eventually there will be a price to pay.   I would much rather have targeted adverts that may be of interest than random rubbish.

The Day I Felt Like Death

I was in my mid-twenties, still an unqualified accountant, when I blagged my way on a three-month secondment to Malawi. The internal advert hadn’t been specific and only said that I had to be a ‘senior’ and nothing about being qualified. Three months away seemed like a good idea.

My only concern was that it had to be sorted within two weeks. We had to agree everything, and I needed to be on the plane to Blantyre before my senior manager returned from his summer holiday. I knew if he got wind of it my holiday, I mean my secondment, would be off. I was in the middle of all his autumn planning.

As I was sitting on the veranda of the Blantyre Social Club, sipping a beer after work, watching the sun go down over the horizon, I am sorry, but I didn’t think of his problems.

My second trip was about 6 years later, and I was on a one-year World Bank contract. I know I have written a little about this before but once in Africa, there is always a small part of your heart left there for safe keeping.

I had a large house and kept a small extended family with various gardening and other jobs. My house boy was Marco and I trusted him with everything. He was always deeply offended if I went anywhere near the kitchen as that was his area. It did mean that a beer from the fridge or a sudden urge for a cup of coffee was delayed by 30 minutes as first I located him and then he made and brought it to me. My Mum on a visit never got used to having to sit in the lounge waiting for her drink. She always wanted to help.

Not all my family were as conscientious as Marco. There was many a time I drove home at night to find the security guard sleeping. It was a cruel game to sneak up on him in the dark and wake him with a loud,’booo’.

My five days of hell started with what I thought was a cold but quickly it was flu but, of course, it wasn’t and on the second day I couldn’t get out of bed. The office arranged for a doctor to come and see me, and it is not just passing time that means I can’t remember what he said. I was in a state of delirium. The fever was raging but I did hear him say, malaria.

I had been taking the tablets although I might have missed one or two. The SOBO tonic, a frequent accompaniment to the copious amounts of Malawi Gin I was drinking was heavy in quinine. I should have been safe but clearly, something had gone wrong.

Before and since, like everyone, I have had flu. To understand how malaria feels, multiply the effects of any flu you have had by 10. It was and is still the worst I have felt. Hot, sweaty, restless, fever, hallucinations, joint pains, in and out of sleep. I felt as though this was the end. There were moments when I wanted it to be the end. It was that bad.

Later, I was told that it was only a mild case and really, I was very lucky. I nearly thumped the doctor when he said that. I didn’t feel at all lucky.

The episode lasted just over a week and I was back at work although a little lighter. I had lost over a stone in weight.

On reflection I was lucky. I was a very fit man with the all the local medical support I could need, but today, thirty years on, a child in Africa dies from malaria every 45 seconds. That’s over 700,000 lives lost a year.

Malaria is both preventable and treatable.

The following is from the Gates Foundation website.

Malaria occurs in nearly 100 countries worldwide, exacting a huge toll on human health and imposing a heavy social and economic burden in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. An estimated 207 million people suffered from the disease in 2012, and about 627,000 died. About 90 percent of the deaths were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 77 percent were among children under age 5.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquitoes. Even in relatively mild cases, it can cause high fever, chills, flu-like symptoms, and severe anaemia. These symptoms can be especially dangerous for pregnant women and young children who are experiencing the disease for the first time. Severe malaria can cause lifelong intellectual disabilities in children, and malaria’s economic impact is estimated to cost billions of dollars in lost productivity every year.

In the past dozen years, the number of new cases has declined by 25 percent globally, and deaths from malaria have fallen by 42 percent. These gains have been made through a combination of interventions, including timely diagnosis and treatment using reliable diagnostic tests and effective drugs; indoor spraying with safe, long-lasting insecticides; and the use of bed nets treated with long-lasting insecticide to protect people from mosquito bites at night.

Malaria is preventable and treatable, and history shows that it can be eliminated. Less than a century ago, it was prevalent across the world, including Europe and North America. Malaria was eliminated in most of Western Europe by the mid-1930s; the United States achieved elimination of the disease in 1951.

This is not an abstract essay just pointing out a problem but it is a call to action.

This is Sport Relief week and a major use of the money you give will be to reduce the impact of malaria. Sport Relief cash will help make those malaria morbidity statistics a thing of the past by providing simple but crucial ways to fight the disease; like malaria nets and information on how best to use them and rapid testing kits so those who do become infected can get the help they need quickly.

Log these statistics again. 700,000 people, mostly children die each year. I felt like death when I had malaria. For one child every 45 seconds it is worse. It is death.

Again, I am asking you to send money to Sport Relief to reduce the impact of malaria. If ever there was a good reason, this is it.

DONATE

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Damascus: Beauty and Beast

Within the last ten years, I have been to both Syria and Libya. Occasionally, I still look at the entry stamps in my passport and wonder how I have managed to travel so extensively without being stopped and questioned.

The Libya trip was sponsored by a direct invitation from Saif Gaddafi the son of the former Libyan leader. These were relatively quiet days, before the war and decline of the country. I was being asked to consider ways we could improve the education system. Of course, we never did the work and my argument with the hierarchy of PwC over this was the start of the end of my working days there.

Libya, or at least Tripoli, was a clean and an almost antiseptic city. It was quiet, the people thoughtful and I remember being offered an alcohol-free beer when I returned to the hotel. It is funny what sticks in the memory.

My invitation to Damascus was again for business but came through an opportunity identified by the New Zealand consulate in Dubai. This was an opportunity to study and recommend changes to the way the Government was managed and targets set.

I loved Damascus and the Syrians I met.

First Damascus. The hotel found for us was in the old city, just down the road from the Umayyad Mosque.

The Great Mosque of Damascus as it is also known is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world and thought by some Muslims to be the fourth-holiest place in Islam. But it is also a Christian shrine as legend has it that the building contains the head of John the Baptist. The mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return. Pope John Paul II visited in 2001.

The roads around the Mosque and the hotel are small, hardly wide enough for our taxi and always bustling with people. The driver didn’t spot the entrance, an unpresuming, single house door among many other similar doors. We drove past it and tried to reverse back through the crowd but gave up and walked. To be honest my heart dropped as I looked at the door and envisaged myself staying in something like a Blackpool guest house.

How wrong I was.

Pushing through the door I was sharing the same feelings as every new adventurer first walking into Doctor Who’s Tardis. That simple door hid something quite different and was the entrance into a huge, only partly covered, courtyard. As one of us said it is like Sheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. It was opulent. A whole different world lived behind that simple door. The inside was enormous

The people we were visiting, our hosts, were as hospitable as any I have ever met. Apart from giving us their time which they did without hesitation they proudly showed us around their beautiful city. When we left they showered us with gifts.

One day I particularly remember was a lunch. As with most Middle Eastern food the meal sumptuous. You could taste the freshness and love put into its preparation. If anything could be better, it was the setting. We were eating outside, under a flimsy awning. Some children, tired of sitting still were running, laughing and playing around the tables. To the side, hidden from the sun a baby was asleep in a pram. It was mid-afternoon, and we were high on a hill, looking out over the city spread below us as light glinted off the gold on a distant minaret.

There is a point to this reminiscence.

I don’t know but it is more than likely that from that restaurant vantage point I was looking at Eastern Ghouta today the centre of a humanitarian disaster. I can tell you what it was like eight years ago but only others can describe the horrors of today.

That baby in a pram will now be eight or nine. The children running around in their teens. Maybe, they are no longer running, maybe they have lost a leg in a bomb blast, or maybe they have been killed in the war.

This is a harrowing, eyewitness report on the BBC website from a doctor in Eastern Ghouta.

Dr Hamid, 50, leaves the makeshift shelter three times a week for a nearby hospital, where he is a trauma doctor. Each time he kisses his wife and five children goodbye, he tries not to think that it might be the last time. He cycles to the hospital through deserted, rubble-strewn streets, mindful of the danger of being outside even for a few minutes. If the bombing is heavy, and there are many injured, he might work for more than 24 hours without a break. When he is treating wounded children, he thinks of his own children, and in the short pauses between patients he prays for their lives. There is no respite.

On Thursday, Syria entered the eighth year of its civil war. More than 400,000 people are believed to have been killed or are missing. Three of Dr Hamid’s own children and many of the children brought to his hospital have never known peace. The injured children arrive with penetrating shrapnel wounds, missing limbs, severe burns, or sometimes with no visible injuries at all, and yet lifeless, with a lingering smell of gas on their bodies.

“Most of the children who die have been shelled in the head or have injuries in their abdomen or bowels. And I have seen some cases of penetrating wounds directly in the heart,” said Dr Hamid.

“These children need specialist surgeons and seven or 14 days in intensive care,” he said. “Many could be saved. In London, they could be saved. In Ghouta we cannot do anything. We try to stop the bleeding and make it OK for them, then we allow them to die.”

This week, a five-year-old boy arrived at Dr Hamid’s hospital with multiple trauma wounds and fractures in both his legs and arms. Dr Hamid sutured the boy’s wounds and amputated one of his arms and one of his legs at the upper thigh. “That is his future,” Dr Hamid said. But the boy is alive, that is a success.

The same week, five young children who were brought to Dr Hamid died. “When we are dealing with children, we hope God will look to them,” he said, letting out a long, deep sigh. “I’m sorry, words cannot express this.”

Atef, 36, a radiologist lives in a basement under a public building, with his wife, children, and 100 other people. Mohammed, a 23-year-old medical student who was forced to abandon his studies to become a full-time war medic, lives with his family in a neighbour’s basement, where 30 people are crammed into three small rooms and there is no electricity or water. “The patients are also our family,” he said. “We will carry on treating them until all the medication is gone. Until we stand with nothing. Until the last minutes.”Dr Hamid estimated that the hospital could have as little as a few weeks’ worth of anaesthetic left, raising the fearful prospect of amputations with no pain relief. “We are working with stitches that were used before, disposable gloves that we wore before, chest drainage that was used on other patients,” he said. “Most wounds get infected and need bandages, but we are using bandages that we used before.”

The place where Dr Hamid was born and raised had been abandoned to its own slow death, he said. It was a place that people came to from Damascus, with their wives and husbands and children, for weekend picnics, or to shop for cheap merchandise in the bustling markets.

“They came here from all around to smell the fresh air and the rivers and the trees,” he said. “To me, it was a paradise on the Earth.”

Now he prays in his cramped shelter at night that his children will one day see the place he can still conjure in his mind, “as green as it was when I was a boy. It may be too late for me,” he said, “but God willing, our children will see these days.”

Yesterday, I asked you to send money to Sport Relief. If ever there was a good reason this is it.

DONATE

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Sport Relief 2018

This may be one of my shorter pieces but there will be few more important. Over the last few weeks, I have asked you to part with your money to help me and buy my books. For this week forget all that. There is a far more important way for you to spend your money.

What I want you to do is to give your money to Sport Relief, 2018

Two years ago, the last time, Sport Relief last asked you to put your hand in your pocket for your hard-earned money they raised the astonishing total of £55,444,906. Can you imagine that? £55 million!

You won’t get anything back apart from the opportunity for a certain amount of self-satisfaction. But these are some of the results you can be proud about. If you gave last time, then you will have:

  • Treated over 900,000 people across Africa with anti-malarial drugs.
  • Helped over 3.4 million people in Africa through maternal, neonatal and child health funding.
  • Helped more than 50,000 people, in the UK, living with a mental health problem.

Listen, if you think £55 million is mind-boggling then what Sport Relief does is so far more boggling than mind-boggling is almost unbelievable.

This is Sport Relief week and lasts through17th to 23rd March 2018

Maybe you think you can’t afford to give to help others to a better world, and however much I moan and complain, by any global measure, I am well off. The very fact that you are reading this on a computer or smartphone is the proof you need.

All the links on this page are to the Sport Relief website. Go and have a look and feel better by giving. This is some of what you will find.

We’re all in this together

Thanks to the money you raise, we’re able to support more than 2,000 projects in the UK and around the world. Here are just three areas, out of many, where money raised through Sport Relief 2018 will make a huge difference.

Malaria

The world has made incredible progress in the fight against malaria. However, it is still a major killer, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. For the first time in history, we have the tools, resources and knowledge to end this devastating disease.

Maternal Health

An expectant or new mum dies from poor maternal health every two minutes. We know, and we have the solutions, to prevent almost all maternal deaths. With your help, we can significantly improve the lives of mothers and babies around the world.

Mental Health

In the UK, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem over the course of a year. Thanks to you, we can fund projects that increase public awareness, reduce the stigma and truly recognise the importance of good mental health.

DONATE

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https://secure.donate.comicrelief.com/

Col Jessop, I Can Handle the Truth

If you sense a tad of anger in today’s piece, then you are probably right. I was stood up with a very poor excuse. I was supposed to be meeting a friend in London for a mid-morning coffee and catch-up and early this morning it was cancelled.

With my lifestyle, doing anything first thing in the morning causes larger changes my schedule than for most people. I can’t go to bed as late as I want (I need my 8 hours sleep) and with diabetes I even have to change my eating habits from the previous lunchtime to make sure I have the right amount of carbs, drugs, and early morning food, otherwise I am taking orange flavoured dextrose at odd times, and they taste awful with coffee.

A change in plan in the early morning annoys me. But, what annoyed me more was the need to offer a palpably untrue excuse.

Do you ever make up an excuse to someone and wondered why you did it? Was it for your benefit so you didn’t look weak or disorganised, or was it one of those white lies because you thought I couldn’t take the truth?  Maybe you feared my reaction if you were honest? Don’t shoot the messenger etc.

There are always good reasons to cancel meeting-up, but we seem inclined to invent excuses to make letting me down seem reasonable or at least palatable.

I am all for spinning a yarn and embellishing a story. That is what I do every day when I am writing a novel, but that is best left for conversations in the pub, or across a meal table. A story is for entertainment. When it comes to important matters and after a Damascus Road experience maybe 8 years ago, I am now a firm believer in the truth.

I like being honest although when I start to answer your morning greeting of ‘how are you?’ with a list of ailments, cured or otherwise, I know it can be boring for the recipient. Finally, I have learnt to differentiate between those who really want to know (my family and Paula, my diabetic nurse at the hospital) and the casual greeting.

The problem is that we are not used to honesty and expect excuses. We expect to be let down gently. We expect empathy to our moods and needs but that is different from being lied to. I know Sasha initially found my honesty difficult, but now she understands me and knows what to expect.

Just as important as not making excuses to other people, is being honest with yourself. That has probably had the greater benefit. If I don’t want to do something I have learnt to say no, and not feeling guilty. Saying that something just doesn’t appeal, I would rather see someone else, be somewhere else, or just can’t be bothered is better for everyone. Real friends understand and that is what matters.

Maybe worse is excusing other people’s failings or poor performance. It happens all the time. You probably know what I mean but as one commentator has said, I have to pay close attention to what people say, how they say it, what they do, and the assumptions they make. It’s not that complicated really; keep your word, respect other people’s time, show a touch of humility, and most of all don’t lie to me. The sooner you stop making excuses for people, the sooner you can surround yourself with people of good character. And seriously, why would you waste your time and energy being around anyone else? https://pando.com/2013/05/30/stop-making-excuses-for-people/

The excuse used today was meant to make feel good. It was clearly a last-minute thought, meant to be sufficiently sensible while also serious enough so that it made me seem unreasonable to debate it. It was a bit like the parent’s excuse to get a kid out of school: his granny has died. Ask any teacher how many times they have heard that one. It’s only when you get to Granny number three that you can quarrel.

Making excuses seems to come so easily to everyone and it annoys me. Do you remember this encounter from the 1992 film, A Few Good Men? Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson were the actors. Powerful and unforgettable.

Col. Jessup: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I want the truth!

Col. Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!

Sorry, Col, Jessop. I want, and I can handle the truth.

Leaders: They’re all the same

This is the start of a BBC News item yesterday. The UK will expel 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow refused to explain how a Russian-made nerve agent was used on a former spy in Salisbury, the PM says. Theresa May said the diplomats, who have a week to leave, were identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”. The UK later told the UN Security Council that Russia had used “a weapon so horrific that it is banned in war” in a “peaceful” British city. Russia denies attempted murder and says it will respond appropriately.

I am sure you know all the background and if not, then where have you been?

I am extraordinarily worried, and I don’t believe the West fully understands the scale of the ‘war’ that Russia is waging. There have been intrusions in Georgia and Ukraine, cyber attacks across the western democracies and now the use of Russian produced nerve gas on the streets of a sleepy British city. We still wait to see if the Kremlin was directly involved or just very forgetful and can’t remember where they left phials of one the world’s deadliest poisons.

This is not the first time that Russia has been accused of murder. A public inquiry in the UK into the killing of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko concluded that President Putin probably approved his assassination.

The former spy was killed in November 2006. The 43-year-old had been an officer with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, but he fled to Britain where he became a fierce critic of the Kremlin. In his final years, he also became a British citizen. After he was killed by radioactive polonium-210, believed to have been administered in a cup of tea, it emerged he was being paid by the British secret service MI6.

What Russia has done is despicable, but they are not alone in State-sponsored oversea assassinations. Russia is not the only pariah State.

On 17 December 2011, the supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il died from a heart attack. His youngest son Kim Jong-un was announced as his successor, and in February 2017 he had his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, poisoned at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport before an outbound flight to Macau.

I am sure you have your own opinions and that is enough commentary from me. I don’t think I can add meaningfully to all the very many articles already on the web.

However, what does interest me is the drive and motivation of global leaders to take such huge responsibility and all the slings and arrows. I have two ideas. First is that it can be a very profitable job and secondly, and it won’t surprise you, simply it appeals to their megalomania.

I am going to quote from the UK newspaper The Daily Mail with the caveat that its anti-Putin rhetoric is well known. Take this with a pinch of salt but the drift will be right.

Russian President Vladimir Putin might be the richest man in the world, according to experts who believe he could have a net worth of $200billion.

During his nearly two decades in power, Putin’s net worth has been widely speculated, with the former KGB agent likely having private assets in real estate and company holdings. One of the most quoted guesses of the 64-year-old’s net worth is political analyst Stanslav Belkovsky’s 2007 estimation of $40billion, but Bill Browder, author and a former fund manager in Russia, has said the president has a higher worth – upwards of $200billion

Belkovsky said that much of Putin’s net worth was thanks to the oil business, saying the Russian president controlled 37 percent of the oil company Surgutneftegaz, 4.5 percent of the natural gas company Gazprom, and had holdings in the commodities trader, Gunvor but Gunvor denies that Putin ever had any ownership in the company, which made $93billion in revenue in 2012, according to TIME.

A well-known sign of wealth for Putin is his $35million superyacht named Olympia. Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich is claimed to have given Putin the yacht after he became president of Russia. 

But perhaps one of Putin’s most visible signs of wealth is a palace on the Black Sea that’s reportedly worth $1billion. According to a dossier written by a political rival of the Russian president, Putin could have access to up to 58 planes and helicopters, a $500,000 watch collection and 20 palaces and country retreats. The report also claimed he uses a private jet with a $137million cabin which has a bathroom with gold fittings and a $62,000 toilet. Other perks include a 2,300-acre residence on Lake Valdai in north-west Russia.

As a passing aside, you might remember that much of Putin’s power was derived by, or certainly consolidated when he broke up the cabal of great oligarchs whom he claimed were stealing money from the State and so totally corrupt.

I want to be balanced and so let’s move back across the Atlantic. Trump made money from the Presidential campaign by hiring his own plane to the Republican party to ferry him around. I know he has set up all sorts of blind trusts but with his whole family so closely involved in the Presidency can we really believe they are effective? But whatever, his tax cuts significantly benefit him. I guess we will never know how profitable it is to be President of the USA.

So there we have one very reason to become a world leader. It is very profitable!

Tyranny and autocracy are unlikely to be the initial intention. More probably the leader thinks they can do good for the State but eventually the dopamine kick just isn’t just big enough. As we know power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

President Trump this week sacked Rex Tillerson. First, he did it on Twitter and as Tillerson wasn’t on Twitter it was left to one of his aids to tell him. We might never know the reasons why he was sacked but there is good evidence to suggest it was because he wouldn’t do or agree with Trump’s views. The thought is that Trump only wants people around him who will do his bidding.

I have already said enough about Putin.

Interestingly Putin and Trump have similarities. Despite their obvious failings they still have large numbers of followers in their own countries.

Whatever Putin has done to Crimea there are even Ukrainians I know who rate him because he is seen to be strong and working to rebuild the Russian State to what he believes is its rightfully, predominant position.

The Russian people still love him. We will know in a few days how many Russian voters want him again as President. It will be a very large percentage even accounting for all viable opposition candidates taken out of the race.

While Trump’s popularity has declined there is still significant support for him and don’t be too sure that he won’t be re-elected.

Just like Putin’s increasing popularity in Russia, Trump’s appeal is based on building nationalist pride. The ‘America First’ campaign could have the same impact while Putin’s cry could be ‘Russia First’.

Who knows where all this will take us. Putin has his new ultra-supersonic, unstoppable nuclear missiles, and Trump wants an economically crippling trade war, Rocket Man and the Dotard want to talk about North Korea playing with its killer toys.

What a wonderful world we live in.

And Here is the News

I have travelled a great deal and spent many a night alone in a distant, overseas hotel room. I switch on the TV and always end up watching BBC News 24 or CNN and it is probably the only time I really watch the News. I do listen to it on the radio when in the UK. There is a News report every hour. Then, of course, there is the internet. the BBC stream is my homepage. I can’t avoid the News in one form or another. The world is full of News.

We all have distorted memories of the past, and always they are better days, but I am sure today there are very different editorial guidelines.  But that has to be. Then the outlets for News were far fewer. One of the curses of 21st-century technology is 24-hour News. The space has to be filled. But, if you want proof of the change in policy look back to 18th April 1930.

The BBC’s News announcer had nothing to communicate. “There is no News,” was the script of the 20:45 News bulletin, before piano music was played for the rest of the 15-minute segment. The wireless service then returned to broadcasting from the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, London, where the Wagner opera Parsifal was being performed. Having once been at a concert performance of Parsifal maybe on that day I would have preferred some trivial News.

Today, I no longer know what constitutes News. I always thought News was meant to be factual but so much of the current output is commentary. Paid journalist or a talking head off the street tell me what I should be thinking. I am perfectly able to come to an opinion if I am given data. I need data, context is fine, but I don’t get that from the News.

It can be done. I am often awake at 1 am listening to BBC Radio 4. Why this is important is that at this time the station turns in to the BBC World Service. Not only does the News become more global it also becomes more factual.

But maybe I am alone with my concern. When I came back from Dubai for the summer holiday or Christmas we would go to the kid’s school and more often than not meet other parents. Many were also friends. I loved meeting them, but I did often find the conversation horribly parochial. When you live as an ex-pat your interest is much more global.

Fortunately, I am not a News editor and don’t have to make the decisions on what is reported, and that is probably good for everyone else. The News would become more global and the number of human-interest stories reduced.

President Trump sacking Rex Tillerson is News but what Melania has for breakfast is not, but I am sure if she changes her diet we would hear about it.

What this fascination with the new News has allowed is the rise of the celebrity or reality show star who has no discernible skill or talent other than being famous. Think Kardashian if you want a reference point. Am I just being an old fuddy-duddy pining for the past? Probably but in a voyeuristic kind of way I have an interest in the Kardashians but please not in the main News. Keep gossip and the News apart.

Meanwhile, I am humming Paul Simon’s song The Only Living Boy In New York.  Can you remember it? Here are the words, and here I am, the only living boy in New York. I get the News I need on the weather report. I can gather all the News I need on the weather reports.

When Technology Goes Wrong

Frequent readers will know that last week, because of International Women’s Day, Sasha and the rest of Ukraine was on holiday for a couple of days from Thursday. Then there was a weekend and, not that it is an issue for you, it meant that we were, in effect, out of contact for four days.

I tried. I sent messages, but nothing came back. I phoned, but there was no answer. It just rang and rang. I hated not being able to say, hello.

She didn’t answer any messages on Viber or answer her phone when I called. Maybe it is my rampant imagination, but all sort of accident scenarios came to mind. Three thousand miles is a long way just to pop round and see if everything was OK. Among all the scenarios I worked through, the one thing I didn’t think was the obvious, her phone was broken.

Now that we have resumed contact and my nerve ends have calmed I have thought about the experience.

As I look at my computer and smartphone I can use email, Viber, WhatsApp, WeChat or I could just phone and talk. I have multiple business and personal email addresses to monitor. The range is frightening. Sasha, because of her work also has multiple phones. But, still, we didn’t manage to communicate.

Read the internet and there are millions of articles reminding us just how important good communications are. You know it all. This is one example, it is no doubt that communication plays a vital role in human life. It not only helps to facilitate the process of sharing information and knowledge but also helps people to develop relationships with others.

We know that. We don’t need to be reminded.

Mothers and fathers all over the country are waiting for their offspring to utter a first word. Unless we talk or communicate we can’t educate and learn. It is also simplistic and a huge understatement to say communications helps people to develop relationships. Relationships, business or personal are all about communications.

I am an avid reader of the internet and with my background in data management, I rank myself as a bit of a whiz at finding things. I understand how search terms work and I use different search engines. I read many ideas about what a company should do to communicate both successes and problems. I read about individuals who can’t communicate for both physical and emotional reasons but nothing about how to manage my emotions when we want to communicate but technology fails us.

I know I can’t be unique and the only one to suffer.

It started long ago. I remember when I was a teenager. It is so long ago there were no mobile phones, no internet, nor email. There was just the landline phone sitting on a table in the hall. I might have met a girl and we would meet on a Saturday night and then maybe only have one short call before meeting again. Even those calls were fraught with tension as we would run the wrath of parents by phoning her at home. My abiding memories of those days were less of love but more the agony and pain of not being able to talk and plan our next tryst.

We may have moved technology forward from my teenage days, but the problems remain.

If you don’t know Sasha and I are living a long-distance relationship where good, honest, and open communications are core. In a long-distance relationship, we rely on technology more than most people. If that technology fails, we have a problem.

We write to each other every day and there is a routine and habit. I send my letters overnight and those from Sasha arrive mid-morning. It is comforting in its repetitiveness but when a letter doesn’t arrive, as happened for a period when the ISP started rejecting my emails, panic ensues. Of course, I didn’t know there is a problem. I have written and sent a letter and so, just assume that it will arrive.

Again, all those thoughts of accidents or illness were to the fore. For Sasha, it was made worse when last year I was a frequent visitor to hospitals and every visit could be but wasn’t bad news. I received urgent and concerned messages from Kiev.

Of course, when you think messages and emails are just heading into the ether there is always the obvious alternative. We could just phone each other.

Now, at least, my days are not rushed. I work sitting at my computer trying to find appropriate words. There is a routine and predictability. At times it gets boring and I want to contact Sasha. I can send a message, or better I can phone.

But Sasha’s life is less structured. She works on projects organising models for photo shoots or is herself the model. Her workday is busy, chaotic, and doesn’t have the same tempo as mine. She is not available to communicate at a whim. I know this, I understand but still, it can drive me round the bend.

We assume that because the other person has a phone we should be able to speak to them anytime we want, but the phone is the most obtrusive of devices. It sits there, ringing and demanding to be answered.

I am always complaining that we don’t talk enough on the phone. I say it doesn’t matter if it is only for a minute we need the contact. What I really mean is that I need the contact and more importantly, when it suits me. We haven’t yet resolved that issue, but we are working on a solution.

I was never precisely sure what Marshall McLuhan meant when in the 1950s he said, the medium is the message. Many have tried to explain it me but here maybe is an example of what he meant. The availability of technology has set new expectations which we can’t always live up to.

Long distance relationships are not easy, but the new technologies make it easier than it once was. Of course, all relationships need trust, we need to be open and honest but more important we need the technology to work.

The Seven Virtues #4 Kindness

I am always taken by surprise. What should be the easy subjects always become the most difficult to write, but kindness is such a bland concept there seems little to say. Doesn’t everyone aspire to be kind and isn’t misanthropy such an unpleasant personal attribute?

Yet when it came to sitting in front of the computer, ready to write on this obvious virtue, it was hard to find the words.

Thinking about kindness, brought back memories of those long off corporate days when, twice a year, directors would meet to review all staff to talk about promotions and merit pay reviews. We would talk about everyone, extolling skills, and lamenting problems. Always there would be one or two of the staff who were almost unknown. We had nothing to say, and all we could agree on was that ‘he is very kind’.

In the environment, it was not a compliment. It was all we could muster. It rarely led to a promotion of merit pay increase.

Are we kind by nature is there something more sinister and why should we even ask the question?

We are wary when unexpectedly someone shows us kindness. We look for ulterior motive and assume that there must be something else at play.

It is because in this cynical world we assume that everything is an exchange. If I do something for you then you are obliged to do something for me. It has always been the nature of business that nothing is for free and in kindness, we often see a barter.

Altruistic behaviour has been studied by psychologists for decades and still they are confused and have come up with a range of theories to explain it. From a purely evolutionary view altruism or kindness makes no sense.

To help close relatives or even distant cousins may sustain the gene pool as they share most of the same genetics. Over the last year, I have been watching my daughter with her first child, the mighty Bertie. The kindness of a mother to a new child is awe inspiring. A mother gives everything to her child.

Or maybe, the psychologist says, it is a way of demonstrating our skills and resources as a way of impressing the opposite gender. ‘Look how good I am,’ you may be saying. ‘Look how I will look after you and our offspring.’

Or, it is a leftover from days when we lived in small groups and the protection of the group gene was the prime motivation for survival.

But all the theories are no more than an excuse for the behaviour and to explain away why we are kind. As one commentator said, it reminds me of my attempts to excuse my indolence when my wife comes home and finds that I haven’t done the DIY jobs I promised to. They’re attempts to make excuses for altruism: ‘Please excuse my kindness, but I was really just trying to look good in the eyes of other people.’ ‘Sorry for helping you, but it’s a trait I picked up from my ancestors thousands of years ago, and I just can’t seem to get rid of it.’

Business understands that there can be profit or at least benefit in social altruism. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now standard and is a regular boardroom discussion. According to Investopedia, it is to take responsibility for the company’s effects on environmental and social well-being. Most companies set targets for CSR but is this altruistic behaviour?

For corporations to be robust and successful, they need to ensure the resilience of the community in which they work and the extended supply chains that serve them. Improving the conditions of the communities around them has a profitable impact. As always there is a reciprocal benefit. It is not pure altruism. Don’t believe Sainsbury’s or Marks and Spencer would advertise and sell goods with the sustainable label if it wasn’t something the consumer wanted or demanded.

Back to the psychologists. One of the benefits they say is that being kind can give a strong dopamine kick exciting your brain’s reward and pleasure centres. You can benefit from the kindness just as much and sit back and imagine how far you can climb up to the moral high ground when you tell your friends of your act of kindness.

I’m not going to proselytise the benefits of being kind but remember kindness is more than just giving. It an attitude about being sensitive to other’s needs.

In 1982, California, Anne Herbert wrote on a placemat, ‘practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty’ and the idea of a random act of kindness as a non-premeditated, inconsistent action designed to offer kindness towards the outside world, was born.

A friend who lives in San Francisco told me a story the other day. She and a friend were in a restaurant for a girl’s lunch. It was a light lunch and they were laughing and talking. As they finished they called over the waiter asking for the bill and were told that a man, who had since left, had already paid it. They don’t know who it was or why he had done it.

There is still a place in this world for kindness.

Too Politically Correct?

Have you ever felt you should be somewhere else but not sure where? I was like that yesterday. I was busy. I wrote, as always. I worked on a couple of business documents for a friend, I wrote a letter to Sasha and I even went to hire my dress suit for Ben and Hannah’s wedding in April. I was occupied and busy but there was always the feeling that I should be somewhere else.

Yesterday I wrote about the romantic aspect of International Women’s Day and I believe quite rightly I concentrated on the reasons why the travesties such as the gender pay gap and sexual harassment needed to be sorted. I railed against the likes of Weinstein who used their power to demand sexual favours. Let’s be clear, I have no truck with anyone who discriminates against women or treats them as second-class citizens.

However, there was one critical comment about the piece. It was a nagging doubt I had as I wrote and wondered if it fitted into the tone. The last paragraph said:

Women are our purpose and inspiration. They give us our mental strength. They are the centre of a family while feckless men waste their lives. And I haven’t even mentioned the beauty they bring to the world. When men stay logical women bring passion. When men are fickle women give direction.

It was the sentence, bring beauty to the world, that caused the comment. I had ruined a good article I was told. I was perpetuating the notion of women as sex objects.

Then I read a piece on the BBC. It was an interview with Susan Sarandon, the actor. While being interviewed, On International Women’s Day, Susan Sarandon also told 5 live that there will “always be a casting couch” in Hollywood. “I think what will go away is the unwanted exchange. But I think that giving yourself sexually or being drawn to power and wanting to have sex with someone that’s in power, is also a choice. What we don’t want to have is being exploited and have the Harvey Weinsteins of the world holding it over your head and holding it over your project. “That is the most despicable.”

There a woman has finally said it. We all have choices.

Sasha would agree and I am sure she is just one of many, many women who feel the same.

Sasha works, and she works hard with management and leadership responsibilities. She is determined and makes her own decisions. She would be appalled if she ever learnt that a man was being paid more for doing the same job. She would have a well-placed knee for anyone who tried it on with her. I haven’t asked her, but I would guess that she is right behind the #MeToo and all the other similar campaigns.

On the other hand, she expects to be treated as a woman and that is different from men. She likes traditional roles.

She likes it when I open the car door for her. I will go further. She expects me to open a door for her. She thinks I should sort out the bill in a restaurant. She dresses beautifully, and she dresses to impress. To my eye at least she brings her own, unique beauty to the world and I am not going to apologise if that is thought as sexist.

She is not always strong. There are times when she feels vulnerable and needs a comforting hug. When she messages me and says, each day I start with thoughts about you and this morning I want you to be here. You have to take care of your Sasha and make me feel warm and protected, I have never felt that she is betraying the ‘movement’.

We need to be careful where we want this ‘political correctness’ to end.

Workplaces need to be professional, but they also need to be friendly, otherwise few of us would turn up every day. Some banter can be hurtful but in a properly managed environment it is humorous and nothing more. The micro-society of the office or factory must self-manage the line.

Bullying is bullying and always needs to be stopped at source but sometimes management needs to be firm and it can’t always be cuddly. There are lines that shouldn’t be crossed but when they are an apology should be given and accepted.

Rape is rape and an abhorrence.  I want to say that there are no grey areas, although I suspect there may be. In 2015, California introduced new law around affirmative consent. Here is an extract from The New York Times in 2014 from a school education meeting.

Consent from the person you are kissing — or more — is not merely silence or a lack of protest, Shafia Zaloom, a health educator at the Urban School of San Francisco, told the students. They listened raptly, but several did not disguise how puzzled they felt.

“What does that mean — you have to say ‘yes’ every 10 minutes?” asked Aidan Ryan, 16, who sat near the front of the room.

“Pretty much,” Ms. Zaloom answered. “It’s not a timing thing, but whoever initiates things to another level has to ask.”

Not everything in the past was good, but we might not be building a perfect future.

Think about the sexual objectification of women in advertising. In the whole and the round, it is not clever and gives the wrong message to children as they grow. It encourages the wrong behaviour.

However, when we are out to dinner sometimes I will sit back and look at Sasha as she laughs and talks to her friends. I can see her anew and always think she is beautiful and yes, sexy. If that is objectification, then I am guilty as charged.

If a man wants to go to a strip club to watch a naked woman dance and she wants to be watched then so be it. And if a woman wants to go to a strip club to look at a naked man then good on her.

There is not an ounce of disagreement that there needs to be mutual consent before any sexual activity, but just getting to that point in a relationship requires social engagement involving talking, flirting, body language and maybe even opening doors and sending flowers.

The world of human interaction is fraught with danger. We are now so politically correct that we are in danger of removing all the spontaneity, humour, and joy of life.

There are many women who want their men to be strong and protect them with their love. They like the traditional values but rightly they insist that added to all the male characteristics is included, respect. With respect, none of the sins of the past will ever be repeated.

But back to where I started this piece. On International Women’s Day I should have been looking after and caring for my strong, determined, vulnerable, beautiful, and yes sexy Sasha with as many romantic gestures as I could muster.

And you know what, she will flirt, tease, and seduce me with her beauty and sexiness. She doesn’t feel guilty. Nor do I. She hasn’t let down any feminist movement.

We have a choice. And I know I should have been in Kiev.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. For those of us in the UK, it is a passing occasion politely noted but not recognised. In Eastern Europe, it is a day of great importance and today Sasha and everyone else in Ukraine has a day’s celebratory holiday.

Other than her birthday this is probably the one day in the year Sasha hates that we are apart. More than any other this is the day she thinks I should be serving her breakfast in bed, give presents of roses and chocolates, and take her out for a romantic dinner. Probably even more than St Valentine’s Day, in Ukraine this is the day for romance and romantics.

There are more important reasons to recognise International Women’s Day.

It is celebrated on March 8 and commemorates the movement for women’s rights and started in 1909 in New York, and the 1910 International Woman’s Conference suggested March 8 to become an “International Woman’s Day.”

Over the last year we have seen significant progress in women’s rights and 2017, more than any year may one day be judged as the year when we arrived at the ‘end of the beginning’.

In the UK there was a real focus on gender pay equality. The BBC has been hauled over the coals by Parliament for its policies and every company must now publicly report its gender pay gap.

Globally, starting with a few brave women outing Weinstein, prominent individuals and industry after industry has been under the spotlight. The #MeToo movement is international and will not be reversed.

The times have changed.

To me, it seems strange that these developments have taken so long to become common currency.  I have said before that when I was recruiting for consulting roles not only were we totally gender neutral in our selection processes, and as far as I know, we had no gender pay gaps. I am not bragging nor claiming any moral high ground. It is just what we did. If June, Maria, or Ann, among many others, are reading this and want to contradict me, please do. I would want to apologise.

June was such a good friend that she was one of my ‘ushers’ at my wedding in the mid-1980s. She managed to find a very feminine version of morning dress although she did tone down her hair colour. As I remember it was quite neutral compared to the green or purple she often sported at work.

In war, historically, men have paid the ultimate sacrifice but all over Europe, allied or German, women maintained a cohesive society while the men were at war. I have written about this before.

It was the strength of the Slavic women that sustained the Second World War push against fascism. I really do believe that it was the women of the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia that saved the West.

I remember a passage I wrote in my first book:

As he drove he remembered the stories he had heard of wartime resistance against the Germans that was fought around these very places. Twenty-two million allied soldiers had died in the war and twenty million of those were Soviets.

He also knew that more than twenty-five percent of Ukrainian and Byelorussians, civilians or soldiers, had been killed in the war. They had been hit hardest of all the Soviet states. The Germans had destroyed over two-thirds of the cities with less than a hundred unaffected. Nearly all the industry had been destroyed, with deaths and casualties of maybe nearly three million.

George tried to imagine how that would have been felt in Britain. Only four hundred thousand British soldiers or civilians had died in the war, but more than six times that number of Ukrainians and Byelorussians had died.

It was this resolve in the Slavic people he admired and respected. These people knew suffering, he thought, and now he had to respect one more Ukrainian. There she was, the babushka, dressed in black and as ever with a black headscarf, sitting and blocking his way in the corridor.

It doesn’t matter why you celebrate International Women’s Day, it is a day when men should recognise the importance of women in your life, something men do too infrequently.

My mother, Annie, Lucinda, Maddie, and Sasha. These are the women in my life and each plays an important and crucial role. I am sure that without them my life would be diminished.

Writers are encouraged to imagine their audience and in particular, imagine just one reader. This is our audience. We write for that person. We write to impress them. We write for them because they love us and will be honest, wanting us to succeed. They are in every sense our muse. Sasha is my muse and today, more than others, I am missing her.

Not all of us are writers but all men have important women in their lives and today is the day when you should reflect how important they are to you. Today is the day when you should reflect on their importance and tell them. And, if they have that special role today is the day to give them flowers and your love.

Women are our purpose and inspiration. They give us our mental strength. They are the centre of a family while feckless men waste their lives. And I haven’t even mentioned the beauty they bring to the world. When men stay logical women bring passion. When men are fickle women give direction.

In my letter today to Sasha I will tell her of my love but here I will just say to all women: I love and I respect you all.

Inspirational Leaders – Tony Bury

I first met Tony just over 10 years ago when I was invited to his home in Dorset to review the strategy for his business in Dubai. It was at Tony’s invitation that I first went to Dubai, and then stayed, working for him.

His career is stellar and varied and it is easier to let his resume talk for itself:

Tony was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, educated in the UK, but has spent most of his life living and working overseas, particularly in the Middle East. Tony is a serial entrepreneur and has established 18 start-ups.  Having exited from the majority of these businesses, he still maintains private equity shareholdings in a range of businesses including consultancy, energy, trading, engineering, and industrial services.

I worked for Tony at his business in Dubai and I think we had a good working relationship for the two or three years we were together. Not least our working hours dovetailed. There was a time when I was producing complex financial models of the business for Tony to review.

I have already mentioned my preference to work through the night and get up late. Tony is the total opposite. He was early to bed and wakes with the sun, or sometimes earlier, but normally just a couple of hours after I had sent him the latest drafts and updates. I knew when I woke there would be a response and new scenarios to evaluate. In a very busy period, it was almost continuous 24-hour progress.

Tony was a ferociously hard worker and I assume that hasn’t changed much.

The business I worked in, in Dubai centred all around Tony. It was his company, a company he had founded and developed. It was a company he owned and being the centre took its toll and was tiring. None of the 20 or 30 so people who worked for him could keep up with his pace.

This was the driver for the first of the metamorphoses I saw. That complex model I was working on was to distribute the shareholdings and power in the firm to the staff.

That business was in oil and gas project support. We should take the story forward again in his own resume.

In 2008, Tony founded Mowgli Mentoring (previously known as Mowgli Foundation) in response to the need for job creation, sustainable economic and leadership development, particularly in the MENA region and UK. Tony strongly credits his success to the mentoring that he has received throughout his personal and business life and believes that every entrepreneur should have access to this support.

In Mowgli, a not-for-profit organisation, he is giving back his own experiences to a wider but far less privileged group. I have no hesitation quoting directly from their website.

Established in 2008 to support the Middle East and North Africa region in reaching its ’80-100m jobs by 2020’ goal, Mowgli Mentoring was founded by Tony Bury, a serial entrepreneur who had spent over 40 years in the MENA region, to catalyse the support and development of successful and sustainable entrepreneurship in the region. Mowgli also focuses on the development of leadership and supporting entrepreneurship ecosystems as a critical solution to the region’s unemployment, poverty, and economic challenges.

I follow avidly the progress of Mowgli and before I move on, I encourage everyone to see what they do. Here is the link http://www.mowgli.org.uk/

We haven’t met again for a few years, but I am sure his capacity for hard work remains enormous, but this is not the source of inspiration. He has many business achievements that in themselves are noteworthy, but what inspires me most his capacity to keep reinventing himself.

I don’t know the full history of Mowgli, but I can guess what happened. Tony was probably reading and reading some more and became angry with the injustices he read about, and decided to do something about it.

We have all done that, but the difference between you, me and Tony is that he did something. I presume that he put in some seed capital, but I know that this isn’t a vanity project and will be properly funded and self-sustaining.

Tony has done this many time over his career and that is the real inspiration.

In a world where change is pervasive and young people will have multiple careers Tony is a role model. To reinvent yourself in a business career once is hard enough. To do it many times is an inspiration.

The Seven Virtues #3: Chastity

Some days while I am struggling to write a piece I think about this self-imposed challenge. It is never easy, always time-consuming, mainly frustrating, often rewarding, but also thought-provoking. That is where the enjoyment comes in.

Some days I arrive with preconceptions. I am arrogant enough to think I know all the answers, but nothing focuses the mind more clearly than publishing 1,000 words. Deficient arguments will be exposed. Woolly thinking is laid bare.

It was like that last night when I started this piece on the virtue of chastity.

I was a teenager in the 1960s and those years shaped and defined me. I am a natural libertarian. I can support the decriminalisation of cannabis. I think the NHS could dispense harder drugs to take the scourge of dealers off the street. I don’t see a stigma in prostitution. I arrived at this piece with prejudice.

I have had my say about lust as a sin and now is the time to write about chastity as a virtue. I was ready to condemn, but before I put the pen to paper and in the spirit of fairness I was willing as ever to do my research.

It was unsurprising to see most of the reference were to religious sites and reluctantly I was duty bound to at least flick through them.

OK, here comes the apology, now I have a better understanding, some of my opinions have changed.

To practice chastity or to be chaste, until the sixteenth century at least, had different meanings distinguishing between sex in or out of a committed relationship. Other than, monks, nuns, and priests (I am not going to get into that discussion and the Catholic child abuse scandals) the virtue is remaining chaste and not, necessarily, practising chastity.

Let’s get then easy bits out of the way.  Simply, chastity is going without sex. Chaste is not having sex outside of a committed relationship.

There are good anthropological reasons to encourage ‘being chaste’ as a virtue. Even without the 9 months of pregnancy, it takes up to 15 years, or thereabouts, for a child to become self-sufficient. There are obviously good reasons for society to encourage chaste, meaningful relationships between the parents to ensure genetic development.

Historically, values encouraged by the Church were important to society to allow it to develop. Canon law, in its widest sense, through the Christian Church managed and is the basis and validity of marriage. It defines the ability to end a marriage as well as the rules for remarriage, and therefore defines the norms for sexual behaviour.

When society was less well defined and universal civil law was more concerned with property, making chastity a virtue and lust a sin, the Church was codifying good anthropological behaviour.

For the majority of the adult population married in a church or an equivalent place of worship, we buy into this concept of chastity with vows of faithfulness. In the Christian church the vows in The Book of Common Prayer, are: with this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and …..

Marriage, faithfulness and chastity are central to the wellbeing of society and today I have started to realise that the virtues are a guide to help build a cohesive society. Maybe, we shouldn’t look at them as absolutes.

But they must also reflect the society we live in and a society that is developing. In the UK at least, the concept of faithfulness in a relationship is being consistently diminished and for many is less relevant today. In the UK there are now 1.8 million families with one parent and dependent children

I said that was the easy bit and the libertarian in me was eventually bound to break out.

What about chastity and in particular sex as a recreational behaviour for those that are not in a committed relationship?

Since the 1960s and the introduction of effective birth control that gave control of conception to every woman, we have become far more tolerant of sex as a leisure activity.  And probably, more importantly, we have accepted that women have the right to enjoy sex every bit as much as men.

The right of women to control when they have children is usually cited as the biggest benefit of The Pill but probably the right of women to enjoy sex is the greater benefit.

But every benefit is always accompanied by a caution. Our liberal attitude to sex and internet technologies have increased the availability and distribution of pornography. Personally, I have no problem with pornography, but I do get worried about pornography and its impact on young children.

Pornography does nothing to teach children about the joy of sex and it is predominantly misogynist. We need to look at the way we educate and teach our children about the joys of sex. We should change the name from sex education to relationship education broadening its scope.

Sex can be one of the most enjoyable of all experiences and, with the noted caveats, to feel ‘dirty’ or sinful for consensual sex, is wrong. We need to educate our children to understand that sex is not a rite of passage nor an athletic pursuit but a shared and healthy expression of a developing relationship.

We always have choices. I have been in a long-distance relationship for nearly five years and staying chaste is not easy. There are always temptations, but it is part of the commitment that both Sasha and I made. We must teach our children that they also have a choice.

I do not expect my now adult children to be chaste before marriage. I do expect them to have full, rounded, and meaningful lives. I see no virtue telling anyone to deny themselves enjoyment because of a moral code that doesn’t apply to them. On the other hand when they make a shared vow of commitment I expect them to buy into it totally.

I still believe that Chastity is outdated but I am a big fan of being chaste. It’s just a shame that tolerance isn’t one of the Seven Virtues. I am feeling full of that right now.

How to be Luckier

When it comes to the lottery and raffles Mum always says she is not lucky, but she always buys a ticket at the local village and horticultural shows, and the regular supply of sweet sherry and cuddly toys, prove she is wrong. I may not have all that I want right now, and I may bemoan my luck, but with wonderful relationships with Annie and Sasha, three brilliant children and now a grandchild, I should actually reflect on a great deal of luck.

What goes around comes around, is the mantra of any sports fan after their team has suffered the bad decision of a referee or umpire, but we know that over time everything is supposed to even out. Maybe, but how often does it seem that when we are down and vulnerable everything else goes wrong. Remember the adage, bad luck always comes in threes.

In statistics anything is possible, but some things are more probable. At the start of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz watches with incredulity as Guildenstern flips coins, all landing heads. Twenty-seven consecutive heads are just as likely as winning a Euro Millions lottery. It is unlikely, but the lottery has been won and when you have thrown 27 heads, again it becomes a simple binary heads or tails.

Philosophers have looked at luck and, as they do, come up with a taxonomy. We are born into a family and society that predetermines much of our later life, or we may have a predisposition to certain illness and disease that kill us early. In the philosopher’s jargon, these are part of constitutive luck and antecedent causal luck. The other categories are resultant and circumstantial luck which reflect making decisions and taking actions just before an unseen cataclysmic event such as the recession of 2007.

This is rather dry and didn’t satisfy my curiosity why some people seem luckier than others. I know talent isn’t necessarily enough for success. I have seen wonderful musicians playing small audiences and wonder why they aren’t global stars. In my new profession there is one new book published on Amazon every 5 minutes and wonder how, and indeed why, one gets picked to rise to the top.

I could blame my bad luck at not being spotted as the undoubted talent I am, and the philosophers do nothing to help me. All their categorisations do is remove my responsibility making me the subject of an external whim. That can’t be right. If I don’t write, then I can never be a best-selling author. I must be part of the chain of luck.

What I want to know is how much of bad luck is fate or bad karma and how much is my fault. Of course, there are many things to change the odds in my favour. I wanted to know what they are.

My research has taken me to psychologist Richard Wiseman, a Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. There are many references to him and I urge you to read them and his book, The Luck Factor. In the Daily Telegraph in 2003, Professor Wiseman says,

To launch my study, I placed advertisements in national newspapers and magazines, asking for people who felt consistently lucky or unlucky to contact me. Over the years, 400 extraordinary men and women volunteered for my research from all walks of life: the youngest is an 18-year-old student, the oldest an 84-year-old retired accountant.

Over the years, I interviewed these volunteers, asked them to complete diaries, questionnaires, and intelligence tests, and invited them to participate in experiments.

The findings have revealed that although unlucky people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their fortune.

That is what I wanted to hear and always felt. We can determine our luck. I have some control over my luck.

Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people consistently encounter such opportunities, whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out a simple experiment to discover whether this was due to differences in their ability to spot such opportunities.

I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.

For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: “Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250.” Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.

Professor Wiseman’s research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

He says I think there are three easy techniques that can help to maximise good fortune:

  1. Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. I think this helps them because gut feelings act as an alarm bell – a reason to consider a decision carefully.
  2. Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.
  3. Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse. In one interview, a lucky volunteer arrived with his leg in a plaster cast and described how he had fallen down a flight of stairs. I asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck.

It turns out that luck is as much a matter of mindset and openness as it is stumbling on the right thing at the right time.

Wiseman points out that this isn’t a matter of stupidity, but of focus. Openness is not just a social capability, but an approach to tasks in general. Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else.

Being too task-oriented, in this sense, is actually a bit of a disadvantage, because it can distract from other opportunities that arise along the way.

Do you remember the diminutive South African Gary Player? In an interview in Golf Digest magazine in 2002, he said: I was practising in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, “You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.” I holed the next one. Then he says, “You got $100 if you hole the next one.” In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, “Boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” And I shot back, “Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

In 2015, Rod Wolfe, was standing outside his home when a tree next to him was hit by a lightning bolt. He ended up in the hospital with broken ribs and some cardiac problems. Unlucky? Of course, especially as eighteen years earlier, he was hit by lightning while working in a cemetery. Or, you could think he is very lucky. He has survived two strikes by lightning.

Bad luck, ill fortune whatever you want to call it is something we all must share.  Life has its difficulties, but it will level out over a month, a year or a lifetime, however, if you can’t wait that long then get up and do something about it.

To paraphrase Richard Wiseman, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win the raffle.

The Seven Virtues#2: Abstinence

Humility, kindness, patience, or diligence, are characteristics I can admire. Chastity was never going to be a personally achievable objective. But abstinence and abstinence from food, what is that all about? Time to find out.  As gluttony is the sin so abstinence is its corresponding virtue.

Abstinence is well founded in the Abrahamic faiths and so deeply embedded in our culture.

Roman Catholics fast during Lent, other occasional specific religious holidays and for one hour just before receiving the Eucharistic.  In Islam, there is a month of fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan. I have lived in Dubai during many celebrations of Ramadan and understand just how strictly it is followed.

There are major and minor fast days as part of the Jewish year.  The two major fasts, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, last just over twenty-four hours. This fast is absolute and the faster may not eat food, drink, brush his teeth, comb his hair, or take a bath. Minor fasts differ in their duration and no food or drink is taken from dawn until nightfall.

In all the religions the purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but to guard against impure thoughts, deeds, and words. Fasting is accompanied by increased prayer and in particular, almsgiving. Giving to charity is one of the five pillars of Islam and paying Zakat during Ramadan is required of every adult Muslim man or woman who possesses a wealth of a certain minimum amount.

But for those of us living in a far more secular world, we have updated our conformance to abstinence and become obsessed by our own self-esteem and self-image. These have become the driver of our eating habits.

We are asked to be ‘beach ready’, the models in our adverts are invariably thin. We have a perception of ideal body shape which we share through advertising and social media.

These new norms have caused us to develop a strange relationship with our food. Of course, we eat too much, and the range and choice are excessive, particularly when you think about world poverty. However, we don’t think of third world malnutrition when abstaining from food; which we do a lot of the time.

The first world is on a continuous diet.

It was in 2004 that a BBC survey showed that more than one in four adults in the UK are trying to lose weight “most of the time”.  The poll estimates that this means 13 million people are effectively on a permanent diet.  Almost two in five (37%) women were dieting most of the time, compared to around just one in six (18%) of men.  The research found that although people were conscious of the need to eat well for the sake of their health, many were dieting to look good.

And it’s got no better, and by 2014 the Daily Mail reported: A record-breaking two out of three women tried to lose weight in the past year – and more men than ever are trying to slim down, figures have shown. This means that last year a total of 29million Britons decided to exercise or diet to ward off problems associated with weight gain.

If it’s not dieting, then we modify and manipulate our diets. Over half a million people in the UK are on a vegan diet and January this year was labelled Veganuary encouraging even more to try a plant-based diet.

There is a diet for everyone and it seems everyone is on a self-inflicted weight loss course.

I am not writing from any position of strength or moral righteousness.

I can control some of my ever-increasing list of ailments with a very restrictive diet. My diabetes is helped with a stricter control of carbohydrates and sugars than I would like, although I do have the orange coloured phial of insulin for the days when my control is less than hoped.

My stomach problems have all but disappeared but only by removing all gluten and most of the other fodmaps. I am supposed to be reintroducing them one-by-one on an exclusion diet, but I really can’t face 2 or 3 days of stomach ache, just so I can spread Marmite on to a slice of stodgy gluten-free bread.

Did I say that by choice I am also a vegetarian?

I have become a moral abstainer, and, I admit, I gloat just a little as I decline a slice of pizza. I may quote doctor’s instruction, but I am happy to see my abstinence reflected on the scales. A point made more poignant as this is Eating Disorder Week.

Food is the essential fuel of our lives but the pressure not to eat and deny ourselves, is pervasive.

In the Abrahamic faiths abstinence and denial strengthen more than the body. The original virtue of abstinence was more than a historical diet but a wider penance embracing the soul. Full denial that harms the body was seen as much a sin as gluttony. More importantly, all the faiths associate giving as an essential side dish to fasting.

Of all the virtues, abstinence is the one most widely embraced, but that doesn’t make any of us virtuous. In our modern culture of self-denial, the single-mindedly focused is on ‘me’.

As always there is a meaningful lesson in our history.

The Antonov 225

Yesterday, Valentin Timoshenko, a LinkedIn friend, made my day. I doubt that was his intention when he posted but thank you.

I had had a poor night’s sleep with a racking cough, the late rumblings of my weekend cold, and I woke feeling grumpy. I meandered working through the day and only by early evening starting to become concerned on the topic for this piece. I couldn’t continue the blatant Brovary self-publicity, I didn’t feel much sympathy for humanity and so the human-interest stories were out, Brexit and politics are boring me.

I needed some science or engineering. I needed something to marvel at and impress me. I needed something concrete to try and understand, and that is where Valentin came into the picture. I was checking LinkedIn and I found his post of a video of an Antonov 225. Don’t worry I hadn’t heard of one before so let me enlighten you.

The Antonov 225 is the world’s largest aircraft with a wingspan twice the size of Boeing 747 which, of course, is 88 metres which, in the spirit of modern journalism, is almost a football pitch long. Last night I watched the snowy scenes of football from Wembley and imagined the fuselage the full length of the pitch and just one wing on its width. The Antonov 225 wouldn’t fit in Wembley.

If Valentin had merely posted the plane’s vital statistics (which I will come to) I would have passed by, but he posted a video and I could watch, in awe, for 5 minutes, as it rolled on the tarmac before a take-off, a quick circuit, and then landing.

Before you read on, I encourage you all to go to your web browser and search for the Antonov 225 in YouTube, so you can share my excitement.

I have never been into train spotting although there was always an excitement when, as a child, we took the train from London back to Huddersfield. Then it was the time of steam trains. We would find our seats, put our luggage in the overhead rack, leave mother, so my father and myself could go to inspect the engine and say hello to the driver. The old steam engine, with the open footplate, was always a wonder of engineering and bound to impress a five-year-old boy.

I don’t believe that it was just because my father was an engineer, but I am almost more impressed by human engineering feats than the natural world.

I remember when I first saw the pyramids in Cairo. It was a short taxi ride from the centre and we were standing at the foot of a Sphinx with the first of the great pyramids close by. You can only start to imagine the engineering feat when it towers above you.

Sometimes you don’t see all the effort and skill that goes into engineering work.

Think about London’s new Crossrail. It is Europe’s largest infrastructure construction project with a budget of nearly £15bn. It’s nearly finished and will soon be operational, but if you had wanted to bid for it you would have had to explain how to construct two 21 km tunnels under London, restructure a few existing stations, and all without any disruptions for the existing commuter.

If you are a little claustrophobic and tunnels are not your thing, then maybe the Jiaozhou Bay bridge linking China’s eastern port city of Qingdao to the offshore island Huangdao, at 26.4 miles long, is for you. If you have mastered that then you could bid for Boris’ idea of a bridge between Dover and Calais. It should be easy, it is 5 miles less.

But let’s get back to the Antonov An-225 Mriya as it is called in its full name.

It is hard enough to understand how any lump of metal ever takes to the air but how so large a lump gets air born and flies is a phenomenon.

Designed and built in Ukraine in the 1980s and after only 3½ years in development at the Antonov Design Bureau, the first flight was in December 1988.  In 2002, the plane took off from Stuttgart, on its first commercial flight, hauling 216,000 prepared meals for American military personnel in the Persian Gulf.  It has been used to carry a Russian space shuttle on its roof,

Now it draws huge crowds whenever it flies. Last year it transported a 117-tonne electric power generator for a Western Australian mining company from Prague to Perth. Thousands of aviation enthusiasts came down to the airport to witness the historic moment. I haven’t been able to find out how many actually turned up, but the plan was to cope with an audience of 50,000.

Go on, check it out on YouTube and be impressed.

As it rolled down the runway the huge wings, each bearing the weight of three engines, flexed under the weight of gravity until the pressure of air rushing underneath the accelerating plane, straightened them. The monster of the plane lifted slowly into the air.

On landing, your heart is in your mouth hoping that landing gear system with its 32 wheels will once more take the weight.

As far as I can work out it is the only one of its kind. They only built the one. But it is going strong. It is a majestic piece of engineering. It is a monument to the ingenuity and skill of man.

Thank you, Valentin. You have made my day.

 

With thanks to Popular Mechanics, and for the real enthusiasts, or if you have a heavy load to take somewhere distant, here are the basic statistics.

Name: Antonov An-225 Mriya

Wingspan: 290 ft.

Length: 275 ft. 7 in.

Height: 59 ft. 8-1/2 in.

Cargo Hold: Length: 141 ft.; Width: 21 ft.; Height: 14 ft. 5-1/4 in.

Engines: Six ZMKB Progress Lotarev D-18T turbofans each producing 51,590 lb. of thrust

Crew: 7

Max Take-off Weight: 1,322,750 lb.

Max Payload: 551,150 lb.

Cruising Speed: 497 mph

Max Speed: 528 mph

Range with Max Payload: 2813 miles

Range with Max Fuel: 9625 miles

Alexandra – Stories of Sensual Fantasies

It was just over three years ago that I met one of Sasha’s best friend, Alexandra. We got on well, just as I have with all of Sasha’s friends, but this has also turned into a professional relationship as she has provided the core content of the book, Alexandra, a collection of women’s erotic fantasies.

Like Sasha, Alexandra is a photographic model, but this is not her main profession. In her normal working day, she is a psychologist. I am fascinated talking to psychologists as the working of the mind attracts me, but Alexandra was particularly interesting because of her speciality.

Alexandra is an expert in female erotic and sensual fantasies. The collaboration was born.

As we talked, I asked if we could turn her case studies into a book and, of course, the answer was an emphatic, no. Like all medical professionals, there is a strict ethical code around clinical confidentiality.

I remember as she said ‘however’. My interest perked. ‘However, there may be a way.’ she said.

We came to an arrangement that meant that Alexandra was going to take all her cases, mix in her own experiences, consolidate some, change locations, anonymise everything, and then I could take them, to turn into a book. And that was how I bought the raw outlines of a book, ready to edit.

There was a lot of work to do. I decided that it would read far better with just a single, central character and of course it had to be Alexandra, herself. It gives the book a narrative trail and makes for a far easier read. It was also one more mask to preserve the worrisome confidentialities.

The editing task was not as easy as I thought it would be. This was a book about women and there was a great deal of debate between myself, Alexandra, and Sasha. I would write one of what turned into 58 short stories and send it off only for it to be returned with corrections. This normally meant removing any male prejudices I had written in.

But we got there and Alexandra is now published.

Of course, I am telling you all this to titillate and hope that you will be interested to buy and read it. Let me direct you to the website www.AlexasFantasies.com

However, there is a wider motive in today’s piece.

Writers of fiction and I now class myself as one, live in a world of fantasy and according to President Trump with his cries of fake news, so does every journalist. When I write all that I do is describe what is in my mind. I can see the action unfolding and just wish my typing fingers could keep up with the action. I am just chronicling the fantasy.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t daydream part of their life away. On another day I described how I imagine and envision upcoming meetings as part of a planning and rehearsal process. I close my eyes and, stretching the definition of the word, fantasise an outcome.

Similarly, there were many headlines I could have chosen. This one was from The New York Times in 2014: Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training. Imagining is at the core of elite athlete training. This is again no more than fantasising.

But, there is a dark side. These last few months have seen a storm of sex scandals across a range of industries from film producers, actors, and lately the charity and voluntary sector. At the heart of all of those are men, in the majority, who have turned fantasies into a warped reality. Well, that is the presumption. We will never know if they sat in their offices with these fantasies or acted on impulse.

While working on Alexandra I researched how important fantasies are to us. For once I am not going to bore you with a history from Freud to postmodern psychological interpretations but ask the simple question: are fantasies best left to be enjoyed as a daydream or are they the spur to achieve and be fulfilled?

Alexandra is equivocal, and rightly so.

We were sitting in a quiet café in Kiev when we chatted just a couple of weeks ago. She pointed me to the awful global stories of sexual harassment. ‘Those men require help,’ she said. ‘And then there are those who are delusional and have deep psychosis. You could say the schizophrenic has fantasies. These people need treatment and not encouragement to fulfil their fantasies.’

Let me make one point very clear immediately. I am an avid supporter of the #MeToo movement proving we must be careful what stays in the fantasy world and what crosses over into the real.

‘But,’ she added, ‘For Mr and Mrs Normal, people like you and Sasha, people like me, there can be great benefit from living out some fantasies. So long as they are bound within safe limits and don’t draw in other reluctant people, they can be good.

‘Sensual fantasies are best when they are shared with your partner. They encourage communication in the relationship and that is always good.’

On the Alexandra website, we have launched a survey of sensual fantasies (sorry to all my male readers it is only for women although you can see the results). Of course, it is a pre-selected group but 90% of women say that they sometimes, mostly, or always share their fantasies with their partner.

Gender stereotyping had me believing that the world of erotic fantasy was predominately a male preserve. Not so. An evening spent with Sasha and Alexandra quickly taught me otherwise. Reading the stories Alexandra sent, convinced.

‘Women have been repressed in their sexuality, but it has changed,’ Alexandra said. ‘They now feel empowered to say what they want and one of the problems is that not all men recognise it. That is one of the tensions in a relationship.’

Fantasies are not a subject we discuss. In a recent survey, 61% of respondents said that even though they talk about their fantasies, they feel there’s a public stigma.

I don’t want to draw far-reaching conclusions. I can happily leave that to you. The book, Alexandra, is nothing more than a good, late night read for both men and women but behind it are some deeper thoughts about our society and relationships.

I was just the editor and I will leave the last words to its author.

‘If I was going to offer any advice to you and Sasha,’ she said, ‘I would tell you to explore all the sensual and erotic fantasies you have. Talk about them. Communicate. Decide where the limits are and work to those limits. Plan carefully and talk, talk, talk. It will bring you closer. It will build your relationship.’

The Seven Virtues #1: Liberality

The Gates Foundation, founded by Bill and Melinda Gates, launched in 2000, is said to be the largest private foundation in the US, holding $38 billion in assets, with the primary aims to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty.

In 2007, its founders were ranked as the second most generous philanthropists in America and by 2013, Bill Gates had donated US$28 billion to the foundation. Warren Buffett, another contributor, is the first most generous.

It is probably the largest ever example of individuals giving to the voluntary sector, probably the greatest ever example of liberality.

While we think of liberality more often in the sense of being open to new ideas, as the antonym to greed (which is the purpose of these pieces) it is the quality of giving or spending freely that will be my focus.

David Cameron decided, even in a period of austerity, that the UK would donate 0.7% of Gross National Income to overseas aid. In terms of donations as a proportion of national income, the UK is in the top five in the world. In the absolute, the UK gives more in international aid than any other developed country apart from the United States, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In a speech to the UN general assembly David Cameron said it was a moral obligation that better-off countries must tackle poverty in a world where more than 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. He argued it was also in everyone’s interests to build a more prosperous world otherwise, the problems of conflict, mass migration and uncontrollable climate change will come and visit us at home.

The 0.7% target is now embedded in UK law as a budgeting requirement but ever since it has been questioned and debated.

One of the arguments against this policy is that it is fine to give to aid but not during austerity when there are problems on our doorstep. Many have said that the money would be better spent on hospitals, flood barriers, and the underprivileged in the UK.

From all the debate you would think that the British don’t give easily to charity. Far from it.

Income from individuals to the civic and voluntary sector, in the UK, in 2015 increased by nearly £0.8bn from 2014 to £20.8bn. Voluntary organisations received £10.1bn from individual donations and legacies. (https://data.ncvo.org.uk/a/almanac17/individuals-2/)

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the people of the UK have been incredibly generous and there is no criticism at all for what they have done. Quite the opposite. I have nothing but praise but compare it to this story of Mother Teresa.

A reporter watched as she cleaned infected and weeping sores of a man.  ‘I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,’ the reporter said.  ‘Neither would I,’ Mother Teresa said. I hadn’t realised that sarcasm was in her skill set.

It is so much easier to give £10 to the poor and homeless when there is a £100 in your wallet. Much harder when it is your last £10.

From Aristotle onwards, liberality has been the subject of a great deal of philosophical discussion, much of course from the religious community where giving is often at the core of the faith.

I am no expert in philosophy, but Aristotle seems to concentrate on the opposite extremes of wastefulness and meanness. His approach was to define the virtue as knowing how to use money: giving to the right people, the right amount at the right time. He went out of his way to emphasise that generosity is not a virtue associated with making money because a virtuous person is normally someone who causes beautiful things.

He adds that it might seem that it is better to be wasteful than mean. A wasteful person is cured by age, and eventually by just going broke. They are more foolish rather than spiteful. Meanness is worse.

I can understand. We can be frustrated when we watch money being wasted but as with Scrooge, we despise the mean.

Of course, there has also been a strong word from religious philosophers. In the way that we celebrate Mother Teresa and wandering Buddhist monks, liberality is at the core of many a faith.

In the thirteenth century, as he always did, Thomas Aquinas had a word or two on the subject. (As an aside if you ever need a quote on morals, virtues or values in a faith-based context then check what Thomas said. There is always a Thomas Aquinas quote somewhere.)

Even poor men may be liberal, he said, because the virtue is not in the multitude of gifts given, but in the habit of the giver. To be liberal is to be ready to give.

Finally, let’s bring the discussion back home.

My Mum, as she will tell you anytime you ask, is 90. After her teens, she has had a good and comfortable life, but at 15, she lost both her parents. It was a traumatic time in her life and it has shaped much of her behaviours since. She is forever grateful to those who looked after her and gave her all the help and support in difficult years to the point and after she met my father.

She doesn’t talk about repaying a debt, but she understands how liberality can change a future and now she is a real and committed supporter of local and international charities. She supports avidly local youth schemes and knits scarves and gloves, at the rate of one or two a week, for orphans in Romania. Her liberality is in her nature bred by the same liberality she received.

This has been a difficult piece to write as it has caused me to think about my own attitudes. How much of the virtue of liberality is in my soul? Where on the spectrum from Bill Gates to Mother Teresa do I sit?

It was in mid-December when I wrote about Greed, the first of seven deadly sins, and I remember the promises I made on how, if I had won, I would give the bulk of a Euro Millionaires jackpot to my family and a wide range of charities. I didn’t win and so my liberality has not been tested.

It is easy to give when you have a lot. That was my plan if I had won the lottery.  My plan was to share because I had more than any needs I could define, but the real virtue in liberality is giving when you don’t have anything. That is much harder to do.

Flu, Philomena, and Darwin Awards

I have not been well this weekend. I thought of it as full-blown flu, but really, of course, it is just a cold, or man-flu. I have been sniffling, coughing and my nose is blocked.  The cocktail of tablets I already take has been added to with regular 4-hour paracetamol. Even if the adage is ‘feed a cold and starve a fever’, food is tasteless, and I don’t feel hungry.

I should be sleeping if off and that was the plan. On Saturday intending to go to bed early I missed the late-night football highlights, but I couldn’t resist watching the film Philomena, the true and eponymous story of Philomena Lee and the search for her son, given up when she was a teenager, 50 years previously.

If you haven’t seen it, it is highly recommended. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith it stars Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

I have read the reviews and know that there was a deal of artistic licence to make the drama. I know also that with Weinstein behind it, the anti-Catholic rhetoric was always likely to be strong, however, it is a moving film with a wonderful performance from Dench.

It was the memory of Philomena that caused me on Sunday to research and find out more about the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. It was depressing reading about these institutions, run mainly Roman Catholic orders, which means nuns.

The nuns took in ‘fallen women’ and their babies. They made the women work in the laundry and put the children up for adoption. In Philomena’s case, and many others, they sold them.

The Irish state has apologised and set up a compensation scheme, but the Catholic Church has refused to contribute to it. No comment.

I woke on Sunday not feeling much better and there was even more than usual aimless surfing the internet and almost always without a fixed destination.

We may think that ‘news’ is about what happens and the events that will change the world, but most of what we read is about people and the ‘human interest’ angle. Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who takes the journey with Philomena Lee was initially reluctant to write about her because it was ‘human interest’. He was a news journalist. It soon turned into a real news story.

While most of my senses have been dulled the ‘stupidity filter’ was fully functioning. This story caught my attention.

Imagine the scene.

Last week, in Peterborough, a young woman, was driving in her car with her two-year-old toddler. The toddler, however, is not strapped in but sitting on his mother’s lap while the driver carries on.

Stupid? Of course, it is but the driver is a 13-year-old relative! When stopped by the police she is reported to have said, ‘we were only on a short journey.’

I hope I don’t need to say any more about this other than sigh with exasperation and suggest that this mother is a candidate for a Darwin Award although I think that Darwin’s are only awarded posthumously when someone manages to kill themselves in the most stupid way.

It was Darwin whose work was paraphrased as the survival of the fittest and the award goes to those who ‘improve’ the gene pool with ultimate sacrifice, or as the website says: the Darwin Awards salute the improvement of the human genome by honouring those who accidentally remove themselves from it.

Previous recipients include the man who decided that it wasn’t just enough to use his iPhone in the bath but also to charge it. I am not an iPhone user, but I understand that they are heavy on the battery but is that an excuse for lying in the bath with the charger on your chest? Of course, he died.

I encourage you all to go and search for the stupidity of some at www.darwinawards.com/ where there is a very long list of ultimate stupidity.

What about Mr Chernov and Ms Kryuchkova in Russia having sex in the back of their car. The breaks weren’t on, the gear was in neutral and their gentle rocking, or maybe it was more vigorous, caused the car to drift into the lake where they both drowned.

Possibly the most famous of the Darwin winners is Eric A. Barcia, a 22-year-old. Reported in 1997 the award is described as follows:

The fast-food worker taped a number of bungee cords together and strapped one end around his foot. Barcia had the foresight to anchor the other end to the trestle at Lake Accotink Park, and he even remembered to measure the length of the bungee cords to make sure that they were a few feet short of the 70-foot drop. He proceeded to fall headfirst from the trestle and hit the pavement 70 feet below several seconds later.

Fairfax County police said, “The stretched length of the cord that he had assembled was greater than the distance between the trestle and the ground.”

I know we shouldn’t be amused but it is hard not to smile. There is something very comforting reading about others misfortune. It makes the suffering of my flu seem acceptable.

The 3 Great Skills of Entrepreneurship

The last few weeks of writing has been intense. There have been pieces about the problems and issues in Ukraine, designer babies, paedophilia, and Belarusian dictators. It is time to lift some of the gloom and I thought we might have a quick canter through entrepreneurship meaning I have to expose some of my weaknesses.

1 IDEAS

Nothing is better than an idea as a starting point. Ideas have never been the problem and from a very early age I was thinking up new ways to do things. Let’s go through some of the better of them and I measure better by two criteria. First, later they became real and successful or secondly, I still think they are a bloody good and clever.

Skateboarding: I made my first skateboard in 1960! It wasn’t totally new. Some kids had been placing a plank of wood on their roller skates for a decade or so. I started by sitting on the plank which was loosely placed on the skate. We would skate down a steep nearby hill and try and take the sharp corner at the bottom without heading out onto what was not, fortunately, a very busy road.

Next, we took the skate apart and screwed the wheels onto the new, sleek board, giving much more stability but better we could stand as we headed down the hill. With practice and a steady nerve, we could start even higher up the hill. If there was too much pace we would bail out, roll out a little on the pavement while the board shot across the road. I remember the look on a driver’s face as a skateboard sped alone under his car.

The development of the skateboard is normally considered to be in America, but for one summer, there was a small corner of Thornton Heath which was skating at the same pace as California.

Budget Hotels It was in the mid-80s with colleagues we developed the concept of a ‘basic’ hotel, without a restaurant, limited facilities, and pre-constructed room fittings such as bathrooms. It wasn’t so much as we developed it but spotted a trend starting in Japan and we adapted it for the UK. We didn’t really pursue it too hard but within ten years it was the standard for city centre hotels.

Smart Phone Money Transfer There were several other ideas floating around but when I arrived in Dubai I was at my most creative phase and again I was way ahead of the curve.

It was in Dubai I noticed the number of expatriates from India and the subcontinent who needed to send money back home. The queues at Western Union were always horrendous.  I wrote a proposal to develop a system for transferring money via the smartphones which then were in their very early days.

One of the biggest markets will be in the third world. The difference in my approach was that the Telco would become a bank as it managed cash moving around the world. A bank never at risk with dodgy lending. Think FairFX run by the phone company.

I tried to work my way up through the management levels of one of the major Dubai Telcos – I think it was Du. There were lots of nodding heads and I worked hard to try and get to the most senior managers who I thought might have the vision, but never quite got there.

Environmental Petrol Stations My next idea was one of two environmental thoughts. In Dubai all the petrol stations are owned by one state company so there is the possibility of concerted action. Also, in Dubai, there is a road charging system which requires every car to be ‘tested’ every year.

This gives the opportunity to ensure that every car and van is fitted with a simple, non-editable, radio-frequency identification (RFI) type device. My plan, which I discussed extensively with the Department of Transport, was to read the RFI of every car that came into a petrol station and adjust the pricing of petrol dependent on the car’s environmental impact. Small cars would be charged less for their petrol compared to the big petrol guzzlers.

The extra revenue was going to go into a charitable environmental fund I was also going to establish. I know if I had managed to pitch this to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum I would have convinced him.

Green Miles an Environmental Fund My next idea I pitched to Emirates and Etihad airlines. Obviously with no luck.

The idea was simple. We were just going to ask flyers to give up their loyalty points which would be transferred for cash into the environmental fund. Airlines, as well as anyone else, have a price for their loyalty points. 5,000 Avios points for a one-way ticket to Newcastle. Anyone interested?

We were asking that passengers show their environmental concern by forgoing the chance to go to Newcastle. With the lead from Dubai, I was sure we could start a global initiative which could embrace other airlines and even such as Nectar cards.

It was going to be called Green Miles, a play on Air Miles.

It was cash neutral for the airlines, a great marketing initiative and a massive positive boost for Dubai. If only I had managed to pitch to Sheik ….. Well, we have been there.

The Emirates University Through many friends who flew with Emirates I got to know the airline business very well.

Emirates has more than 20,000 crew with 135 nationalities and they all go through a significant period of training. The investment in recruitment and training is enormous. Therefore, one of the key performance indicators for airline success is keeping cabin crew a little longer than average. The longer they stay the greater the return on the investment.

They use many ways to increase retention rates, but I had another which again was broadly cash neutral.

Contrary to many a perception cabin crew, at least in Emirates, are intelligent people, many enjoying a special break in their careers. The proposal I put to the management of these companies was to establish their own ‘university’ allowing the staff to build credits to international level diplomas and degrees. I had already sourced courses form The Open University and contacts in New Zealand who would accept remote accredited courses.

The commitment to funded education would keep a significant number of staff longer to finish the course. we called it the Emirates University.

It is still a good idea. Ah, well.

2 MAKE IT LIFE OR DEATH

The truth is that lots of people have ideas. Lots of people have brilliant ideas but only a few ever get to the point of doing something about it.

I suppose the failure to exploit the skateboarding opportunity was my dad’s fault. He should have seen the opportunity but there are examples of kids starting their careers early.

Looking back the source of my failures to turn these ideas into something real was that, although important to me, they weren’t a life or death passion. Success doesn’t come from a good idea but from making it everything in your life.

Of course, I worked on the ideas, I worked up proposals, I had clever graphics and good financials, but I was too easily distracted by, well I was just too easily distracted. I pushed at doors but never hard enough.

For the really successful entrepreneur, for you, it must be life or death.

3 CONTACTS NOT MONEY

There will always be a time when money is the need and that is when the Dragon’s Den is useful but well before then you need contacts.

In all probability, the entrepreneur doesn’t start knowing the right people, but it is the area you need to work on. It is never enough just to get others involved, however senior they are, you need them to share your passion. That is not always easy.

You have a good idea and are convinced it will change the world. If it was obvious everyone would already have made it or done it. The hardest part is getting others to have and share your vision of how the world will work.

As I had my ideas I would close my eyes and imagine cars pulling into petrol stations and the petrol pump price moving up or down. I could see the environmental fund spending money to plant more and more trees. I saw children colouring the educational packs we were going to create. I saw children telling their parents to fly Emirates because it would save the world.

I had a vision, but I used logic and not the heart to try and sell the ideas. That was wrong, and I was never able to share my passion.

On the other hand, I was never talking to anyone who was interested in innovation. It is hard to sell change to those that are paid by results.

If I was CEO of any reasonably sized organisation I would create a role called Director of Innovation. The role would not be in the reporting line. Anyone, from the shop floor upwards could approach them with any ideas that could fundamentally change the nature of the business. Traditional reporting lines inhibit those ideas getting upwards.

A Story of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum

This may be apocryphal, but it says something about Dubai. In the very early days when Dubai was little more than a few developments off the road to Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed is supposed to have driven out into the desert with other leaders.

The 4x4s stopped and Sheikh Mohammed addressed the group. ‘What do you see,’ he said pointing into the distance. There were puzzled faces and finally someone answered with the obvious.

‘Sands and dunes,’ he said.

Sheikh Mohammed shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I see great tower blocks, houses and shops, factories, roads and people.’ He stopped and looked at his fellow leaders. ‘Now, let’s get on and build it.’

If only, if only I had managed to pitch to Sheikh Mohammed. I wouldn’t be rich, but I would be hugely satisfied that in my own small way I had changed the world for the better.

Why is Lukashenko tolerated?

There are some moments in sport that are so pivotal that they can’t be ignored. This is one. Read what the press has said:

The Olympic champion of Sochi 2014 and a favourite of Pyeongchang 2018 came in nowhere because of biased refereeing. The final assessment from the judges was unreasonable. Each of them overestimated the assessments of their respective compatriots and underestimated the competitors.

After his first jump, I thought he would be first. But he won’t. After his second perfect jump, I was sure that he would be at the top. But he won’t either. It’s a total chaos! So, judges are free to do whatever they want. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

The judges… None of them has anything to do with freestyle and aerial skiing. They learn from video reviews. They are amateurs come there just for the sake of attending the Olympics, to drink coffee and rest.

My opening paragraph may be tongue in cheek, but the press quotes weren’t. Then again, they were all taken from Stolichnoe Televidenie, the Belarusian State television channel after Sochi champion, Anton Kushnir, from Belarus failed to get through to the finals of some skiing or snowboarding final.

Elise Christie of GB was the favourite and world champion when she was disqualified from three events. What did Prime Minister May do?  As far as I know – nothing.

But Belarus President, Alexander Lukashenko resented the decision of the judges and wrote a strong letter of protest to the head of the IOC, Thomas Bach. We can leave this because, of course, nothing happened other than I suppose a ‘thank you and noted’ reply.

What it did remind me was that dictators can throw out their toys if they don’t get what they want. In this case, a gold medal for Belarus.

Maybe you didn’t know Lukashenko was a dictator? Well, that is the big news and if he hadn’t reminded me with his tantrum and silly letter, I might have left him at the back of my mind.

The closest I ever got to visiting Belarus was when I transferred through Minsk when Sasha and I went to Krasnodar from Kiev. It was a fine airport, but I have learnt that one of the symbols of every 3rd world dictatorship is a flashy airport. If you want to understand Belarus’ political allegiances, then it is enough to say that the entrance into Russia takes place inside Minsk airport. Part of Minsk is forever Russian.

Because of a once close friend, I developed an interest in the country and a pre-Lukashenko Belarus is one of the key locations in my first novel, The Masterful Manipulation of George Cove.

Like many in the region, it has had a rough time. It was on the western flank of the old USSR and the main borders are with Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.  It was ravaged by the Second World War and proportionally lost more of its people and property than any of the other allies. Most of the radiation of the Chernobyl disaster swept across what were previously abundantly rich farmlands. While other countries became freer with the downfall of the Soviet empire, nothing changed in Belarus.

In the 2006 ‘elections’ Lukashenko received 82.6% of the vote and then 79.6% in 2010. Presidential elections were held in Belarus on 11 October 2015 and Lukashenko ran for his fifth term in office. He has won every presidential election since independence in 1991. He was re-elected with 83.47% of the vote.

Do not believe this is a sign of popular support.  Protestors and dissenters are ruthlessly put down and imprisoned. Talking about the 2010 election USA State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.  “The United States concurs with the assessment of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). We cannot consider the election results yesterday as legitimate.”

A White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: The United States strongly condemns the actions that the government of Belarus has taken to undermine the democratic process and (the use of) disproportionate force against political activists, civil society representatives and journalists.  We call for the immediate release of all presidential candidates and the hundreds of protesters who were detained.”

President Lukashenko is at the head of a brutal dictatorship generally overlooked by the West.  This is dangerous and important.

Belarus is in the heart of the new Europe.  Two of its bordering countries, Ukraine and Poland, hosted the European Football Championship and for what it is worth, each year, Belarus enters the Eurovision Song competition. But that is the trivia.

Economically you may want to worry about the Russian gas pipeline into Europe that goes through Belarus. Do you mind it is in the hands of a dictator?

Russia exports about 150 billion cubic metres per annum to European markets, the equivalent of roughly 30 percent of the continent’s gas needs. There are 3 main pipelines – one through Ukraine, one through Belarus and Poland and a third called Nord Stream that goes straight under the Baltic Sea from northern Russia to northern Germany. Only 40 billion cubic metres pass through Belarus. That’s a quarter of Europe’s needs.

Socially you may worry the continuation of the old Brezhnev Doctrine which led to many Russians being sent to the satellite states to ensure Russian hegemony by removing, squashing and all but eliminating Belarusian culture. But what does culture mean when you have an ideology?

We could add our support to the dissidents like Mr Sannikov.

Sannikov, a former adviser to the Belarusian diplomatic mission in Switzerland, and later Deputy Foreign Minister, was one of the most popular opposition candidates to stand against Alexander Lukashenko in the disputed December 2010 presidential elections. When protests broke out over claims of voting fraud, President Lukashenko responded with a brutal crackdown that led to hundreds of arrests, widespread torture, the imprisonment of almost all those who ran against him.

I understand the political machinations that mean the Belarusian people don’t have a free vote or the right to decide their own culture and direction. Belarus is a convenient buffer State for Putin on the Western front but a dictator on our doorstep cannot be tolerated. He is ruthlessly restricting all the freedoms of the Belarusians.

There is a brutal dictator in the heart of the new Europe. We should condemn him and not pander to his silly outbursts.

The Evil in our Midst

I haven’t enjoyed writing this piece. The subject is important but distressing. It has also made me angry.

There are two sides to every coin. Yesterday I was with young Bertie my grandson and I will be with him again today. He is a great bundle of joy who makes me smile and feel happy.  I am not alone. Young children make us laugh and remind us how simple life can be. But, there are others who only have evil designs on the young and impressionable.

Today’s piece is about evil, pure evil. It is very usual for me to comment on items in the immediate news. I prefer to reflect, and I like to try and place them in my own experience to give them a context.  Today, it is different. I have no context.

This week, in the UK two paedophiles were sentenced having been convicted of the most atrocious of all crimes. Last weekend a Pakistani man was sentenced to death for killing and raping a 7-year-old girl, and earlier in January, a doctor to the US gymnastic team was sentenced to 175 years in prison for assaulting young girls.

Unfortunately, I need to give some details before I can comment. I feel sick as I reread what I report.

Case 1: Barry Bennell was a football coach at two professional clubs and used his position of trust between 1979 and 1991 to abuse 12 boys aged eight to 15. He is already in prison after previously being convicted of child abuse on three occasions. He received jail sentences in the UK and in the US in 1995, 1998 and 2015.

Judge Clement Goldstone QC said Bennell was ‘sheer evil’ and ‘to those boys you appeared as a god… in reality you were the devil incarnate. You stole their childhoods and their innocence.

The judge said Bennell, who worked at Manchester City and Crewe Alexandra, was ‘hell-bent on abusing boys, and left a trail of psychological devastation. If the boys tried to resist you convinced them their football careers would suffer.’

He has been jailed for 31 years at Liverpool Crown Court for 50 counts of child sexual abuse.

Case 2: Cambridge graduate Matthew Falder, 29, admitted 137 charges – including rape – against 46 people, and a “warped and sadistic” paedophile who blackmailed victims and shared abuse tips and images on the dark web has been jailed for 32 years.

At Birmingham Crown Court, Judge Philip Parker QC labelled Falder an “internet highwayman” with a “lust to control”.

Phil Mackie, in court for BBC news (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-43114471) writes

In 25 years as a reporter covering countless trials, I have never heard evidence so sickening.

Matthew Falder never showed any emotion during the three-and-a-half days of sentencing at Birmingham Crown Court, but for the brave few victims who faced their tormentor during sentencing, it was hard to contain their tears.

Hardened investigators were also visibly upset as some of the evidence was read out. Those who suffered extreme abuse and degradation say they are still suffering the impact of what he made them do, but it’s hoped that the knowledge he’s behind bars will begin to ease their nightmares.

Case 3: In Pakistan this week, a Pakistani court sentenced a serial killer to death after finding him guilty of killing eight children, including a 7-year-old girl whose rape and murder drew nationwide condemnation and triggered violent protests. Mohammad Imran, 24, pleaded guilty during a five-day trial.

Imran was arrested in January, two weeks after authorities say he raped and killed 7-year-old Zainab Ansari and threw her body into a garbage dump in the city of Kasur. He also admitted three other similar rapes and murders.

Case 4: Finally, in the USA last month, the paedophile doctor, Larry Nasser who abused Olympic gymnasts will die in prison after he was jailed for up to 175 years. He was accused of molesting almost 160 young women and girls in America, including four-time Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles.

 

Those are basic, chilling facts and the only glimmer of hope is that these four men have been arrested and sentenced and their menace has been removed. They have caused me many and complex emotions.

I am deeply saddened when I read the case details and the sympathy I feel for the victims and their families could never be properly expressed. I feel disgust that these men can gain any satisfaction from their activities. Literally, I cannot understand them.

And there is anger. There is an anger towards them but a deeper anger at myself, as an ordinary member of society. I feel we have let down the victims.

It is a trait in all these cases that the perpetrators are highly manipulative and certainly in Falder’s case highly intelligent. He is a Cambridge graduate. They work in a complex sub-society and work just as hard to cover their tracks. It is as if they know of the deep evil of their deeds. They are not easy to stop.

But what sort of society have we created that allows this to happen?

We can never blame the children. Children learn by copying their friends, their parents, and their mentors. As they grow they absorb from every stimulus and they learn fast. We need to be able to give them every possible stimulus and social media is one of those. We will never be able to keep them off social media forever and so we need to find ways educate, warn, and support the children.

We can tell them not to be so trusting and they need to be more careful. Probably true, but sad. Paedophilia is not new and of course, my parents were always concerned about my safety, but the sophistication of grooming, the tools available and to be honest the level of evil have all increased. Police around the world recognise this and in the Falder case, there was global, international cooperation as they investigated his activities across the dark web.

As a society, we may have a grudging approval for an audacious robbery. We may sigh when we hear of another teenage stabbing, but society must condemn, absolutely and loudly, any paedophilic behaviour because nothing strains the very ethos of a society than this behaviour.

The penalties need to be increased. There needs to be a real deterrent. One of these men was sentenced to death – not a penalty I normally agree with – but all the other three will hopefully die in prison.

We must pitch all our human and financial resources against this vile habit.

We might never stop paedophilia, but we need to look at ourselves and our societies and remove this curse.

The Right to Education

Economist always say that a highly educated workforce is a primary driver of economic success. For different reasons, every parent says that maximising the potential and opportunities of their children is their hope.

Based on that you would expect building a great education system would be the highest priority of any government. If you got carried away, you might even hope that education could be taken out of politics, but nothing separates political ideology more than how we educate our children. Funding, structure, and syllabus changes have dogged UK educational performance.

In the UK, a proper summary of all the changes and developments will be thesis piece because there have been so many changes and tinkering.

As a quick precis, though, here, is my history.

In the 1960s I was very privileged with my education. I was at a State primary school, Kensington Avenue for those that are interested, at a time when there was an 11+. That was a test that all children aged 11, took which determined the format of the secondary schooling. Passing the 11+ meant a grammar school and failure was a path to a less academic future with an increased focus on a more technical skills education.

I passed my examination and managed to get into the top ten in the whole of the Croydon area which meant an interview at Dulwich College, a private school. I succeeded at the interview and under a scheme then in place, Croydon education paid the scholarship fees at Dulwich.

Then to University. I went to Leeds and again Croydon paid my tuition fees. This wasn’t a scholarship but the structure then in place. The local authority paid tuition fees for everyone while maintenance was means tested.

Over the years much has changed.

The 11+ is no longer. Labour governments hated the idea of children being tested and graded so young in what they saw as a life-defining moment.

Nor did they like Grammar schools which they believed to be elitist and introduced the concept of a Comprehensive school where all abilities were educated together. Within a Comprehensive school, the amount of streaming was restricted.

Over the recent years, Grammar schools have made a limited comeback but mostly in Conservative run education authorities.

The student contributing some or all of their University tuition fees was introduced across the entire United Kingdom in September 1998 under the Labour government. Then students were required to pay up to £1,000 a year. Over the years this has increased and capped at £9,250 a year

Students can have a loan to pay these fees repaid over their working life as a direct deduction from their wages or salaries, once annual salaries have reached a threshold.

It is not the same across the whole of the UK with the devolved authorities in Scotland and Wales having their own arrangements and in Scotland, for example, the devolved authority pays tuition fees for those defined as Young Students.

Education arrangements in the UK are very complex and this is a short and very incomplete summary but getting it right is more crucial than anything else, probably more so even than a good Brexit agreement.

In 2015-16 around 76% of all institutions charge the full amount of tuition fees. There is no difference for the effort a University puts into delivering a course or for the value a student receives. There is now over £160 billion of loans outstanding and the Government has conceded that a significant proportion will never be repaid. There is a strong belief that the system of student contribution, paid for by loans that will never be repaid, is just as costly as the State paying directly. The only difference is that in one the student graduates, and enters a real world, with debts of over £40,000

Yesterday, the Prime Minister called for better value for students in England, admitting they face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”. The contribution required in the USA is less (for other than Harvard and similar schools) at around £5000. France the student fee is £500 and in Germany, it is zero.

While announcing an independent review of fees and student finance Prime Minister May also argued for an end to “outdated attitudes” that favour university over technical education.

At last, but this is a review that will take over a year and is driven, I believe, more by political expediency than any sense of moral purpose. Last year, in the General Election, the Labour party said they would remove all student tuition fees immediately capturing the youth vote.

I am not sure that my opinion on the right way to go forward is particularly relevant as we all driven by our past and maybe not the needs of the future.

However, that won’t stop me saying that I think:

  1. We need stability and consistency across all political parties. Education must be taken out of the day to day political posturing. Whatever the new parliament, long-term funding needs to be ring-fenced while the trajectory of approach must be consistent.
  2. Teachers, like doctors and nurses, need to be revered and respected as the most important people in our communities. They need to be paid among the highest and not the lowest.
  3. Streaming by ability is important. As I have said in other pieces, in relation to sport, competition is hugely important to achieving the maximum from your abilities.
  4. Saddling university students with huge debts as they leave is perverse. Education is trying to set up undergraduates for a future and not ‘put them behind the eight ball’.
  5. Not everyone is academic and wants or needs a traditional university course. Many a young adult is better learning and improving trades and similar skills. We need to invest in technical schools and apprenticeships. We need an education system that is fit for everyone’s abilities. That will also benefit society far more.

When I talk to friends the only one of these 5 points that raise any debate is the third. That is easily resolved. There must be data which shows if streaming maximises the potential of the best and increases the average for the less gifted. Or, vice versa. I will live by data.

Politicians, please, stop playing with the future of our children. Stop throwing dice with the future of the country.

If Ever You Needed a Kick off the Couch

This piece is about two British, female athletes, Elise Christie, and Lizzy Yarnold. For very different reasons they are inspirational and especially inspirational for women.

Let’s talk first about Christie.

Elise Christie is a short track speed skater who represents Great Britain.

If you don’t know anything about short track speed skating it is another of those crazy winter sports. Between 4 and 7 skaters race around an oval track, a bit over 110 metres long with record average speed of over 50 km/hour. They race at distances between 500 and 1,500 metres.

In the last Olympics in Sochi, she was disqualified in each of her three events. It was heart-breaking to watch as Christie showed to the world on live TV, all her emotions of disappointment. As she cried for herself so we all cried for her and with her.

She says her favourite event is the 1000m event. Following the tragedy of Sochi, she was ten times a European gold medallist, including two overall European titles in 2015 and 2016. In the 2017 World Championships in Rotterdam, she won world titles in both the 1000m and 1500m events, as well as the overall gold. She is the first British woman and first European woman to do so.

In other words, she is an elite athlete at the top of her form, or so you would think. The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang was going to be her redemption. As I write 2 of her events have taken place and again she has also been eliminated from both. In the last, she was also badly injured as she fell heavily into the edge padding and was taken to a hospital.

At first, as she was taken to hospital it was feared that she had broken her ankle. After a scan, it was found to be ‘nothing more’ than a soft tissue injury. Although not a break she was unable to put on her boots. Today she was posting videos of her on a training bike with the promise that she would do everything she could to be on the track, whatever the pain, to race on Tuesday.

It is a frantic, hectic sport almost guaranteed to lead to crashes and dispute, but how can one person seem to have so much misfortune? However, despite set back after set back, Christie still returns for more. It is the strength of an elite athlete that they accept the misfortune and come back stronger ready again compete.

Yarnold’s route to a second an Olympic Gold Medal in the Skeleton was not a cruise over the 4-year gap.  For the year after Sochi, she was unbeatable and was world champion. However, since 2015 she has taken a two-year gap from the exhausting schedule. There are no training facilities in the UK. To train and compete she has been away from home travelling around Europe, North America, and Japan. She was spending more than six months every year on the road.

After a two year break last year she returned to the sport with just one ambition: to win another gold medal.

This year her form has been, at best, patchy and she has not won any of the World Championship races. In fact, she has often not been in the top 10. After her first run, travelling at more than 80 miles an hour and covering the one-mile course is a fraction over 50 seconds, she was dizzy. She suffers from an ear infection and this is quite regular.

When calm and resolve were needed at the start of the final run she proved to have an abundance of both. She has the winner’s core requirement of belief in herself, she has belief in what she was doing and the training process.

Let’s be clear there is no history of winter sports in the UK.  We have only ever won 11 Winter Golds and Lizzy Yarnold has won 2 of those. It is a superhuman effort from a wonderful athlete, but it shows exactly what happens when dedication and purpose are combined with opportunity.

What links these two great athletes. It is not just winning and courage but the way they have taken the opportunities offered them.

Elise has suffered untold pain and disappointment in the Olympics but despite that excelled straight after. Lizzy has had the glory of the Olympic Gold Medal but fought back from a loss of form and motivation to again reach the pinnacle of her sport.

You don’t suddenly become a winner.

A decade ago Lizzie was an aspiring heptathlete when she converted to Skeleton spotted by the ‘Girls for Gold’ sports programme.

Elise got her first taste of short track speed skating at the age of twelve and quickly took to the sport. By the age of fifteen, she was invited to join the GB Squad. Originally from Scotland, Elise moved to Nottingham to concentrate full-time on skating at the National Performance Centre with the rest of the Squad.

There was an opportunity and they grasped it with everything they had. Significant National Lottery funding supported both.

There are opportunities out there for everyone. Success is there for anyone who wants it badly enough and willing to give their all to succeed.

In particular, I hope Lizzy and Elise inspire young women. GB has won 4 medals at these Winter Olympics and women have won 3 of those.

An inspiration for us all.

Pyeongchang: It’s All in the Kit

The British have an enviable record in Olympic Velodrome cycling. Apart from tremendous, powerful, and super-human athletes, British cycling has worked, and then worked some more on what they have called marginal gains.

Everything is reviewed and optimised: the bike’s aerodynamic shape; the materials it is built with to give maximum strength, minimum weight, bend and twist when needed; the shape of the helmet shape, and of course, the materials used to make the kit. All is considered and tested in wide tunnels.

It gets on the nerves of the opposition and it always ends with someone questioning the legality of what the British are doing.

Go back to the Summer Olympics of 2012 and France’s director of cycling Isabelle Gautheron said: “We are looking a lot at the kit they use. We are asking a lot of questions: how have they gained so many tenths of seconds? I am not talking about any illicit product because anti-doping tests are so strong. Honestly, we are looking a lot at the kit they use. They hide their wheels a lot. The ones for the bikes they race on are put in wheel covers at the finish [of a race].”

The French were further unnerved when Sir Dave Brailsford, the head of British cycling replied, “I told them we had some special wheels because we had made them especially round.”

British humour was yet again lost on the French. Referring to a French make of wheel, French paper L’Equipe’s ran a headline “Magic or Mavic.”

Brailsford was forced to later add, “The French seemed to have taken it seriously, but I was joking. They are the same wheels as everyone else. There is nothing special about them.”

When victory is measured in hundredths of seconds, it is the sum of all those tiny fractions of one percent of marginal gains that can be the difference between winning and perceived failure.  A life can be forged out of the two Olympic weeks and an athlete wants every chance they can to win.

The debate about the British focus on marginal gains has reopened at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The Skeleton is an event for either the maddest of the mad or the bravest of the brave. You lie on a sledge and head down the course for around 50 seconds, head first at speeds of over 80 miles per hour.

For the last two Olympics the UK has won the women’s Gold Medal and defending champion Lizzy Yarnold is there again. The women’s medals haven’t been decided and overnight Dom Parsons won a bronze in the men’s race.

But in training, Yarnold, team-mate Laura Deas and men’s slider Parsons have performed much better than was expected based on recent World Cup performances. Could it be that they are just simply better at learning the best way down a course that no one has used before, or have they peaked at just the right time?

Of course, those were the reasons, but the British have done it again, announcing that for the first time the British sliders are wearing new hi-tech suits. Competitors are asking whether their new attire has played a part.

The complaints prompted the sport’s governing body to clarify that the suits were legal. It said: “The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation currently checked race suits of the British skeleton team. There were no rule violations at the presented suits.”

Just as in cycling there are marginal gains to be made on the equipment but to question the kit that takes away all the credit from the athlete who has the skills, the muscles and focus. They train hard and the harder if they want to get to the top. These guys are dedicated beyond what most of us could imagine.

As Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 driver almost always reminds us when he wins, winning is a team effort. The driver, and that includes Skeleton drivers Yarnold, Deas and Parsons, are at the tip of a massive team effort of coaches, nutritionists, dieticians, physios, and science.

When a footballer is injured, and the manager says he will be back playing in three weeks that isn’t a guess. The physios are supported with a massive array of quantitative biometric and scan data. The answer is the answer of science.

Sometimes, it is the science of food. Harry Kane is an English footballer. Some might argue that he is currently the best centre-forward in Europe. This is what he said in October last year.

“I think, over the last year or so now, I’ve changed a lot off the pitch with the nutrition side of it, It kind of clicked in my head that a football career is so short. It goes so quickly, you have to make every day count.

“So, I have a chef at home to eat the right food, helping recovery. You can’t train as hard as you’d like when you have so many games, so you have to make the little gains elsewhere, like with food.

 “I was always eating well, never badly. But I have a guy come round and he explained what you could do, eating the right food at the right times. You could eat healthily all week and then carbs [carbohydrates] before a game, and that could make your body go into shock because you’re not used to it. So, maybe higher carbs sometimes, lower other times, making plans around training. I started doing that on Jan 1, a New Year resolution.

“I met the guy in December. I spoke to him and it blew me away a bit. I’d never looked too much into it, but when he explained what the body does and how he could help me recover… He helped me in the recovery from the [ankle ligament] injury, with certain foods I was eating. It opened my eyes a bit.

“He’s there [at Kane’s home] every day, Monday to Saturday, and leaves it in the fridge for Sunday. I hardly ever see him because I’m at training, but he’ll cook the food and leave it in the fridge. We’ve got a good plan going and it seems to be working.”

The Skeleton, in Great Britain, was funded £6.5 million over 4 years up to Pyeongchang to win a medal and there is already payback.

To win, the athlete needs to be funded. The funding pays for both the athlete’s own costs and the technology development. That is why the slider who wins will come from one of a very few countries. We may want to know who the best slider is, but we won’t. What we will learn is which supreme athlete also has the best team working with them.

Is this what we want from our sport? Would we rather watch every athlete wearing the same suits and riding the same board? No, and it can never be, and never was.

One of the criticisms of Formula 1 car racing is that we all believe that Lewis Hamilton is the fastest driver, but we can’t be sure because of the differences in the cars. So, it is with every sport.

Kane is a professional footballer and the Skeleton sliders are professional athletes and so it is right that they search for and find every source of marginal gain to add to their own abilities.

Winning is a massive team effort. Applaud the whole team and not just the man or woman who stands on the podium.

For Every Sin There is a Virtue

February 14th. It’s a date that resonates all around the world. Valentine’s Day is universally recognised as the day for lovers to be together. It is a day for romance, tenderness, and love. It wasn’t always so. Romantic love and Valentine’s Day are not formed out of ancient history or pagan rites and only came together when Geoffrey Chaucer, in 1382, wrote Parlement of Foules.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

For this was on St. Valentine’s Day,

when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

We are not about to go on a nature trail of avian dating and mating habits nor, having done all the research, a history of Valentine’s Day. Mostly, that was boring. Chaucer kicked it all off. End of story.

There is a lot of mythology starting with the Romans, and then it is far more associated with lust than love. The names of young Roman girls were thrown into a hat for the young men to choose a partner for erotic games. In today’s politically correct world I don’t intend to comment on that although the stories you may have heard of swinging parties and car keys in a bowl, do have an ancient history!

In the series I wrote on the Seven Deadly Sins love and lust were combined, and I suggested that lust was not a sin if matched with love (http://www.gerrycryer.com/2018/01/03/the-seven-deadly-sins-3-lust/ )

But, if lust is a sin, then love is its complimentary virtue and I wondered if every one of the sins was matched by a virtue. It wasn’t hard to find the answer. Philosophers, the spiritual and the religious have all had a say on the virtues we should aspire to – more so it seems than the range of sins we can commit.

The Seven Contrary Virtues are specific opposites to the Seven Deadly Sins while the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are a medieval list of things you can do to help others. Bushido, the code of honour and morals developed by the Japanese samurai, has its own Seven Virtues.

When Pope Gregory defined the seven deadly sins he kindly also included a counter-balancing set of virtuous values.

  1. Faith, is a belief in the right things.
  2. Hope, is taking a positive future view, that good will prevail.
  3. Charity, is a concern for, and the active helping of, others.
  4. Fortitude, is never giving up.
  5. Justice, is being fair and equitable with others.
  6. Prudence, is care of and moderation with money.
  7. Temperance, is moderation of needed things and abstinence from things which are not needed.

For the biblical scholars among you, the first three are a slight variation on St. Paul’s trio of Love, Hope and Faith and are known as the Spiritual Virtues. The others are called the Chief or Natural Virtues. Greek philosophers had already defined these.

Now a sinful confession. I enjoyed writing the series on the Seven Deadly Sins and so now is the time for penance and I will be covering all the virtues over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, with all the thoughts of Valentine’s Day still fresh, and, although out of sequence, I can start a little early with an initial thought on love. Heard at weddings all over the country these words of St Paul are still the best for a Valentine’s Day.

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous. 

Love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly. 

It does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Of course, there will be more on a later day but as I wish all of you my best for the day, I hope you will allow me a moment of personal indulgence: Sasha, I love you. Every day with you is Valentine’s Day.

Let’s Design a Baby

It was in 2012 when I first wrote about genetic engineering and designer babies and since then much has changed. Then. just 5 years ago, the modern science of gene manipulation was at a relatively early stage in its development. The pioneering work of genetic engineering alongside the world genome project, was only just coming to fruition.

Today, as I was browsing and wandering around the internet, I read more about developments and realised that the concerns I was then expressing were becoming a closer reality. Research and technology have moved forward faster than no one, other than scientists working in the area could have imagined.

When I first touched on this topic I started with the words of Bob Edwards, an embryologist and IVF pioneer: ‘Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.’

Today there seems nothing overly controversial with that opinion but not so long ago the testing of the foetus was limited to specific problems and gender.

When Annie and I were having children, pre-natal testing took a variety of forms, from ultrasound scans to amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or testing foetal cells in the cervical mucus or maternal bloodstream.

I assume that these haven’t changed, and the tests are carried out at a variety of times throughout the pregnancy to check the development, age, and any specific impairments of the foetus.

These were tests Annie had when she was pregnant with our children and fortunately, we didn’t have to face any difficult decisions. I am not sure if I can remember if we talked about how we would react to an unfavourable result.  It was far too difficult a conversation.

Pre-implantation testing, or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), is usually coupled with IVF as the woman’s egg is fertilised in vitro. At an early stage of embryo development, there are three types of cells that are available for analysis: polar bodies, blastomere cells and trophectoderm cells. Of these, the common practice is to test a blastomere cell before the embryo divides beyond the 8-cell stage and just before, theoretically, able to develop into a complete person.

The point that medical practitioners make (in 2012) is that these tests are screening for specific illness: ‘Contemporary clinical genetics is aimed at preventing and treating genuine illness, rather than ‘purifying the population’ or eliminating racial and social minorities.’  (Tom Shakespeare)

A 2015 article in The Guardian spelt out the future. Over our very recent history the technology of DNA editing, with Crispr technology has moved ahead at a rate we could never have imagined.  ‘The new genome-editing technology has the potential to eliminate genetic diseases by making changes to our DNA that will pass down the generations.’

That prospect tantalises Tony Perry (a molecular embryologist at the University of Bath) because it raises the possibility of generating offspring that carry either no risk or a reduced risk of some genetic diseases. Perry suggests it might one day be possible to correct a harmful mutation …  and stop someone inheriting that predisposition to breast cancer. “You will be able to eradicate it from your descendants,” he says.

Crispr can be thought of as a pair of molecular scissors guided by a satnav. The scissors are a DNA-cutting enzyme; they snip at a precise point in the cell’s DNA specified by researchers using a customised guide molecule, a single short piece of RNA, DNA’s chemical cousin. The DNA-cutting enzyme is known as Cas9, hence the technique is often written Crispr-Cas9. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/may/10/crispr-genome-editing-dna-upgrade-technology-genetic-disease

Since then we better understand DNA, and the technologies have advanced becoming ever smarter. What was once science fiction is now close to reality. It was just a month ago that Chinese scientists reported they had cloned monkeys, the first primate cloning.

Every scientist who explains their work is always keen to stress that the work is undertaken to manage, remove, or eliminate dreadful diseases that are often passed on because of genetic issues.

That is a worthy and totally appropriate use of science and as our understanding of the human genome and manipulation of genes increases, so very soon many other treatments will become available, and it may not be just for genetically caused illness.

It was Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, whose theories on natural selection had just gained broad acceptance, who, in 1883, coined the phrase eugenics. and by the turn of the century, and right through to WW2, many governments advocated the eugenics movement.

It was most widely discussed and acted on before WW1. In the USA over 64,000 people were sterilised as ‘imbeciles’ on the basis that they were unfit to bring up and support a new family.  The USA was not alone. It was a global movement, culminating in the atrocious activities of Josef Mengele and Nazi Germany.

But eugenics didn’t finish with the war. Sweden sterilised more people (62,000 between 1934 and 1975) than any other European country after Nazi Germany. Eugenics in the 20th century was government sponsored.  In the jargon, it is known as coercive eugenics.

Now we are entering a new world where it is the choice of individual parents, or more likely the to-be-mother, and not States or governments to decide on the skills and attributes of their children.

Time for a definition: Eugenics, noun, the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

The UK and other governments are trying to maintain control over how these technologies are used. The Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority are the UK’s watchdog. While today, gene manipulation is only allowed for disease cures, they are pushing against a tide of technology.

There will soon be pressure to use the technologies to a modify embryos to chose physical and maybe even emotional characteristics. Maybe science already knows how? We need to resist the temptation and think carefully about the consequences.

A Visa to Visit

If you want a job done, then ask a busy man! It all feels a bit like that today. Away in Kiev, there was always something to do, we were always busy and yet still I found time to write. The quality may have dropped just a little with all the pressure, but everything got done.

Now I am back home. The case has been unpacked. The mail has all been opened and whatever required an answer has been answered and now I can concentrate again on my writing but it so difficult to get going again.

Somehow you feel that while you are away for a week everything will have changed and that the news channels need to be scoured and searched. Of course, nothing is any different. The world has gone on its way and just because I wasn’t watching it hasn’t taken a 90 degree turn into oblivion. Even the winter Olympics aren’t much of an attraction except for the curling which is fascinating for a totally inexplicable reason.

Neither President Trump or Prime Minister May thought to do something unexpected and make a wonderful surprise for Gerry when he came back to the UK.

Brexit was again in the news and produced one of the more comical prospects of a Brexit dream team (not my description) of Johnson. Gove and Rees-Mogg. As an idea, there is little more ludicrous and so in the way of modern politics, we can assume that it will happen, and I will have to report the news of about Prime Minister Johnson.

Immigration control is at the heart of many of the Brexiteers and with my thoughts, invariably, still in Kiev it is an issue.  I don’t need a visa to enter Ukraine, but Sasha needs one to enter the UK although she can get into the Schengen area without one. We can meet easily in Paris but not London. These thoughts took me back to my conversation with the vet who sat next to me on the return flight.

We sat in silence for all but the last fifteen minutes of the journey. We were both working. It was a conversation started as much out of politeness but as Sasha would tell you I do have a problem not talking to strangers.

After the normal small chat, I was saying that Sasha and I had started working on her visa to the UK to travel and come and visit both me and her sister who also lives in the UK. It was at that point that my fellow traveller’s eyes rolled a little and she started to tell me about the UK immigration control in Kiev.

My new friend told me how difficult it was to get her visa. Even though she was by now already married it was not easy for her. They had to produce ‘evidence’, which in her case were all the letters they had shared (still retained and never returned), to prove that they had a proper relationship.

The questioning was intrusive. She is a few years older than her husband and at one time she was taken aside and asked why she would want to marry a man younger than herself. What was her true motive? Taken aback all she could say was the very obvious, ‘because I love him.’

With perseverance, answering every question, waiting two years, finally they married, and she now has a family and a British passport.

It makes me think, hopefully, of the day when Sasha and I go through this process and the preparations I could make now. We have many hundreds of thousands of words in the letters we share and maybe I should start to collect them all together into one book in yearly volumes. I quite like the idea of arriving at immigration and landing on their desks five volumes of beautifully bound volumes of correspondence.

Of course, when a couple are separated by 3000 miles and meet nothing like as often than they want, the letters cover a wide range of topics. There is the usual mix of relationship administration fixing and planning for trips. Then there is the day to day news to be reported. There are words of love reminding each other that our love is real and permanent and finally there are the naughty and erotic passages.

I am starting to enjoy the thought of immigration officers reading all we have written. I might even take out all the R rated sections into their own volumes!!

However, the bigger issue is that getting entry into the UK is not the easy path that some seem to think that it is.

Brexiteers take note. There is a misconception that anyone who wants to come here can just wander in. It is far from the truth. Even a visitor visa requires all sorts of machinations.

Once the rules are set our immigration officials do their very best to make sure they are followed. In fact, they go further. They positively discourage entry to the UK.

Kiev Reflections – A Paradox Exposed

A fly through business trip leaves few memories other than the disruption to your personal life be and the continual desire to be home. A holiday in a far away and sunny climate leaves reminiscence captured and recorded on countless selfies and maybe, for me at least, sunburn on a balding head. But leaving a lover after a week of romance, sharing new friends, and being absorbed, and taken into a family, leaves the heart scarred forever.

Appropriate then that the weather yesterday, as we drove to the airport, was cold, dry, overcast, and heavy with snow-filled clouds not quite able to snow and show all their emotions. They reflected how I felt. It is never easy to say goodbye.

I like Kiev and I like Ukrainians, but I have a bias. No doubt had I fallen in love with a Hungarian I would now be feeling the same about Budapest. It is hard to be dispassionate in love.

Last week I wrote about the Ukrainians strength and stoicism and I think there is something almost unique in that. They are by nature serious and determined and whatever is thrown at them they take in their stride. I have shared that thought many times with those I met. On the plane home, last afternoon I sat next to a Ukrainian vet who has now moved to the UK and married an English man. She too reconfirmed my proposition.

But they are not dour people. Far from it and there is a happy and fun side to any gathering of Ukrainians. It is always a great party and normally well fuelled by alcohol. I remember a Polish girl I knew in my late teens and we went to a Polish wedding together. To this day I don’t think I have drunk so much. Slavic parties are invariably fun.

I didn’t want to leave but similarly, I couldn’t stay. It is not just all my wonderful family that draws me home but the continuing need to earn some money, and that raises the paradox which I am still trying to solve.

Sasha and I would like to be together and she is working hard to fit out a new apartment. I can see a life half and half between the UK and Ukraine, but that is not the problem. The problem is, as ever, financing it.

While the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil having money is a necessity. The issue is what needs to be done to acquire it?

Once that was easy; I would just find a job, get the train every morning, fill the eight or so hours and come home. That is still a solution I can aspire to although it is becoming more and more difficult as I get older.

My bigger problem is the conflict between what we could call a traditional job and pursuing a ‘career’ as a writer.

This all started more than 6 years ago when writing a novel was a unique personal challenge that was never meant to be more than a one-off. After all, everyone has one book inside them and it was going to be more of a sabbatical aimed at trying to dispel demons then inhabiting my mind.

During this first writing, I had become almost nocturnal and worked through every night. On the 24th floor of a Dubai tower block, the television always on in the background, the sound turned down low, empty cans of Pepsi strewn around the floor, an ashtray always full, I was writing.

I started writing like the consultant I had been the day before – yes, it was that sudden – wanting to map out the plot and all the characters before writing a word. That failed in the first two days. I wanted to write and not plan and so I wrote.

There was an exhalation as the story developed and the characters spoke to me. I learned to like George Cove and at times felt very sorry for him and his plight. Then one night there was a breakthrough moment, the sort of moment that makes it all worthwhile. I will try and avoid the plot spoiler, but I was working at my table, it was the middle of the night when one of my favourite characters, someone I always assumed would be with me until the end of the book, died.

I was shocked. It was never meant to be like that and for the last moments of that night, I did no more than properly inform George, her parents, and friends of her death. It was the least I could do in her memory. I stopped work. I cried and that night could write no more.

I am sure that those of you who have read the book would just turn the page and keep reading, passing easily over that moment and move on to the next chapter. I doubt, very much, you would have cried but these were my friends and I was telling their story. It may have started in my head, but it was real, and I was telling it for them.

There are now four books, a fifth half written and these pieces which someday, may also be published as a book. I write every day and feel guilty if I don’t but at what point does it stop being a hobby and start being who I am? When does a hobby become so passionate that it becomes one’s inspiration for living and all that you do?

I am now at that point and it was all brought into sharp relief over this week with Sasha, her family and friends in Kiev. The reality is that for only a very, very few is writing a career that pays its way.

Amazon has made it easier to sell books, but it has also made it easier to publish them. Publishing is a hugely competitive market. There are estimates that in 2014 twenty new titles were published each hour in the UK alone. Nor does it have huge margins. I publish through Amazon companies and the margin on each book is about €1.50. You can work out how many books I need to sell to pay for a night out.

I am driven to write because there are stories to be told and thoughts to be shared. I need to write, and it can’t be a sometimes, once in a while activity. It is something that needs all my focus.

Writing is selfish; writers put writing above most of everything else. As I am developing this skill the need to produce words which thousands and maybe even millions of people read, is a selfish and even arrogant drive. There is a strong emotional component about trying to succeed as a writer. I have never been able to draw and never been an artist, but I assume it is the same as they feel.

When asked by a stranger what we are, what do we do, I now answer unerringly, ‘writer’. It has been a transition but first and foremost that is what I am. I am a writer who sometimes is a management consultant.

This trip to Kiev has put all this into sharp focus.

We all know the stories of the artists that lived in frozen garrets with hardly a cent to buy food while all the money goes on paint. Later, and long after their death they are discovered, and their work recognised as masterpieces.

I am not quite in a frozen attic and my work will never move into the masterpiece category, but I am a point where I need to commit or quit.

It is not quite as blunt a choice between Sasha and writing but it is close. Sasha is undoubtedly my muse and without her, in my life, there may have been no books. I have told her I love her and her love for me is fully reciprocated but love alone will never pay for food and a home. Our shared financial needs include more than the basics and we want to share a few of life’s luxuries as necessities.

A rational, head-based decision would be to pack it all in, get a ‘proper’ job. I could stop writing and in my spare time carry on with the marketing, website development, social media etc. and make a few extra pounds from the work already done. Then Sasha and I could marry and live a happy life.

But would it be a happy life because I now see myself as a writer? Not only do I see myself as a writer, I am a writer with all the flaws, ego, selfishness and focus of a writer.

I love Sasha deeply and I will do all that I can for her, but it worries me that the emotional cost will be more than I can give. It worries me that she may not love the man who doesn’t write. Sasha has only known me as a writer and I am scared that if I stopped writing to provide the life we both want so desperately then the very essence of the person she loves will disappear.

So, here is the paradox.

Do I have to give up doing what I love for the woman I love, and maybe in doing that lose precisely what is now the very essence of my personality and basis of our love?