Category Archives: miscellaneous

Cars reveal us for what we are

We wouldn’t find Mr Bean so funny if he actually shared the road with us.

Except in America, the state goes to considerable lengths to keep weapons under control – particularly those of mass destruction. It fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to that end. Yet each of us is weaponised in a user-friendly way that cannot be controlled.

The moment we slam the door shut on half a ton of metal and hurtle off at who-knows-what breakneck speed, we are weaponised to an extraordinary degree. Never was this more dramatically rammed home than at Nice last year when over eighty people were crushed to death and untold numbers of others crippled and scarred for life.

Suddenly both we, and our enemies, realised that all around us were ready means of destruction on a massive scale. Worse was the knowledge that the state was powerless in the situation and that you didn’t need bomb factories, ingredients and planning, all of which it did have a chance of monitoring. You simply could step out one morning and kill a hundred people if your vehicle was sufficiently beefy. It was a terrifying realisation.

The car has been a hugely liberating and empowering development in the human story. Up to the eighteenth century, people rarely travelled more than eight miles from the place they were born. Suddenly, their territory was covered in asphalted roads which enabled them to reach the furthest corner of their homeland in incredible time. Journeys of weeks were reduced to hours. Moreover, those freezing weeks of bone-shaking boredom in horse-drawn carriage on rutted, unmade roads were now reduced to hours of warmth and comfort in which people didn’t need to listen to the inane witterings of strangers. Within a short time, we could enrich the airwaves with the finest music our species has created or hear the intelligent musings of the more articulate and entertaining of our people.

Nothing, I suggest, of all the wondrous technological achievements of recent times, including television and the Internet, has been embraced with such enthusiasm. It does, however – as most things do – have a downside. It is partly responsible, I feel, for our failure to engage with our neighbours. Where once our walk to work or the shops brought us into contact, we now take five paces out from our front door into the car and race off. Another downside, which has taken us a hundred years to experience, is that in the hands of a sick fanatic a vehicle can be as devastating as a machine gun. Yet another, and one to which we blissfully give insufficient thought, is that among the myriad things we humans get up to – and in this I include adrenaline sports – nothing puts us at greater risk of killing ourselves. Those same said comforts lull us into a false sense of security. Our constant search for ergonomic improvements has led to ever quieter engines which, when combined with superior suspension systems, can find the car having magicked its speed up to 100 mph with us barely noticing. Not only does this ‘improvement’ bring greater danger to ourselves, but to pedestrians as well. The virtually noiseless electric car is already upon us.

It is a rare person who regards himself as being anything other than a good, safe driver. Most of us regard our skills to be greater than they are. Next to our home and, much more so than our workplace, the car excels as our number two comfort zone. That very factor should give us pause for thought. You are much more at risk of complacency when you’re relaxed in your comfort zone.

We set out each day confident in the belief that our skills will protect us and steadfastly imagine that our safety is almost wholly in our own hands. This, however, completely misses the elephant in the room. Our safety is actually in the hands of strangers. Every time we embark on a journey we rely utterly on every other driver to do the right thing. Hundreds – or even thousands on a long journey – of other drivers whiz by us; if just one of them makes a misjudgement or is distracted, particularly on a bend, we become another statistic – one of over 5,000 who die annually on our roads.

It is a sobering thought that while so many of us are scared of flying, we are many, many thousands of times more likely to die in your nice, comfortable runabout. Just as astonishing is the blind faith we place in strangers to ensure that this does not happen. But having said all this, and despite these undoubtedly serious caveats, the car remains a wonderful thing.

Getting around was once the preserve of the rich: those who had a horse. It stayed that way during the early years of motoring. Then along came Henry Ford with his Model T and the masses joined in the fun. Even a Caesar would have envied what was now available to the least of what would have been his subjects.

Crazy, over-confident drivers are not the only people we should fear on the road. There are those afraid of their own shadow. While we have gained protection to a degree by applying tests both to ourselves and our vehicles, we cannot shield ourselves from the motorist who insists on driving super-cautiously, often well below the permitted speed limit. He or she can so drive fellow motorists up the wall that even the most forgiving can do the unthinkable and precipitate an accident. Nonchalantly blind to the stress levels building up in the queue stretching away to their rear, the slow-coach Sunday driver is a true menace. But hope is on the horizon. Within a generation, most of our journeys will be driverless. Even the slow-coach will have been speeded up. Fatalities on the road will plummet. That should be welcome news to all of us, but think how that prospect will cheer the Greeks and, indeed, all the nations with horrendously worse records than our own. Worldwide, over a decade, millions will live to see old age.

It is often difficult to know what sort of person an individual is. But here again this chariot of the common man excels. Spend half an hour behind anyone, especially in an urban area, and you will have many of the answers which even daily concourse can fail to provide. The way we drive reveals so much about ourselves. Cars expose our true selves in a way so few activities can. They expose show-offs, bullies and chancers. They show whether you’re considerate and polite or, God forbid, indecisive like that slowcoach. And what about the personalised number plate man (as he almost always is a man)? Unthinkingly, he reveals to the world that he’s a narcissist, a man in love with himself.  Life is a cabaret and people are supremely adept at hiding their true personality. But put them in charge of a car and all will be revealed, for better or worse.

Talking with students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

A week ago I had a rendezvous with twenty students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The meeting had come about after a professor at the distinguished university, Maren Niehoff, who lectures in the humanities, had stumbled upon my book while visiting London’s renowned Foundling Museum last year. She enjoyed my story so much, and found it so relevant to her course, ‘The Individual and Society’, that she decided to make The Last Foundling required reading for her elite students in Jerusalem alongside the meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence. It goes without saying that I was utterly blown away when I learned of the company I was keeping as an author!

Professor Niehoff emailed me following her visit to the museum to ask if I would like to meet her students at the museum on 29th March, following a visit she had arranged to Oxford University, where Maren had studied in her youth, to talk about my experiences growing up in institutional care at the Foundling Hospital with reflections on my struggles adjusting to society after I left it at fifteen.

Known at its inception as the Foundling Hospital, Coram is still committed to improving the lives of the country’s most vulnerable children and young people after nearly 300 years of operation and is, in fact, the world’s oldest registered charity (it was renamed Coram after the institution’s closure).  The original Foundling Hospital had been set up by a seafaring philanthropist called Captain Thomas Coram who obtained, after seventeen years of intense lobbying, a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739 to provide for the care and education of illegitimate and deserted children.

I thoroughly enjoyed answering the students’ questions about my story, relating a little of my life through those years of challenge and lovelessness,  and I felt it to be a great privilege and honour to meet Professor Niehoff with her wonderful young students. Happily, I was among the very few foundlings who managed to locate their family and enjoy considerable success in the years that followed. I’ve uploaded a collection of photos taken by my younger son, Grant, of the visit below.

Well done Plympton Gardeners’ Association!

Grateful thanks to Plympton Gardeners’ Association, who dress out Ridgeway’s six concrete tubs (they’ve even painted them white). City parks department could learn a thing or two from this dedicated group, who even do what parks never did… keep it going throughout winter. Parks abandoned their post in their ill-chosen efforts to scrimp, but you’ve stepped into the breech with great panache. Thanks!

Ridgeway Flowerpot

An exciting year awaits!

The ruling class have failed properly to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. Image © Steve Bell.

The ruling class have failed to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. Image © Steve Bell.

The year is young, even if some of us are not. I thank my readers for showing interest in my musings over this past year and hope they will hang in there for another.

My feelings about 2015 are that it will fully live up to that old Chinese adage on parting from a friend or acquaintance, ‘May you live in interesting times’. Think about it: no pundit has ever approached an election with so little of an idea as to how it will all pan out. The stakes are incredibly high.

If we elect Red Ed, then the spectre of a departure from the EU recedes as he has no intention of holding a referendum. That should please the Europhiles. On the other hand, if he pursues the path of his hero François Hollande of France, whose policies he’s publicly endorsed, then he will jeopardise a recovery which is the envy of the world and which even the IMF itself said recently was unlikely to happen. To add to confusions and insecurities, it seems distinctly possible that the man who resoundingly lost the Scottish independence referendum and who slunk away with his tail between his legs is now set to bounce back as England’s ‘Kingmaker’ and become part of that same Westminster clique he so scathingly denounced throughout the referendum. But what if Cameron – while gaining the most seats – fails again to win an outright majority? Will he attempt once more to climb into bed with the much derided and ridiculed Clegg? Or will Theresa May’s day have come and the party turf our Dave out in favour of ‘kitten shoes’?

Maybe beer-swilling, cigar-chomping Nigel Farrage will make such a scenario a condition of his anticipated clutch of Ukip MPs joining with the Conservatives to keep Labour out, saying as he laid out his stall, that he couldn’t possibly ask his boys to support a man who once described them as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Working with Theresa would be much more fun, particularly as it would demonstrate that our Nige and his cohorts were not against women per se. But they would point out they needed to be of the right type: the Thatcher/Boudicca variety. The then adolescent Nige still vividly remembers being powerfully affected by the leather-clad, jack-booted ‘Great She Elephant’ (Thatcher) as depicted in ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Private Eye’. He even recalls frissons of sexual excitement at the way she liked bringing her riding crop down on any recalcitrant cabinet member. A favourite victim was poor, timid chancellor Geoffrey Howe. Not known for her sense of humour, even she saw the funny side when Labour’s former chancellor, Dennis Healey, said “being attacked by Geoffrey was like being savaged by a dead sheep”.

So now we are in an election run-up in which absolutely all bets are off. My own feelings tell me that there will be local deals between Ukip and Conservative candidates in which they agree not to split the right-of-centre vote if there is a chance of administering a good kicking to the incumbent Labour MP and giving him the old heave-ho.  Such deals, I believe, will be made regardless of what the leadership wishes. So I predict a very messy and fractious bunch of new MPs arriving at Westminster. As well as the usual tired old band of re-treads, there will be loads of gurning, cantankerous Scottish Nationalists – specially authorised by their slippery leader to drive their English compatriots to distraction – as well as a band of screamingly politically incorrect Ukipers and a sad little rump of Lib Dems. I even think Wales – where it used to be said that even a donkey wearing a red rosette would get itself elected – may be ready to give that donkey’s party (Labour) a good hammering and have their own nationalists sent to Westminster in their place. And I wouldn’t put that past even the Cornish in the future – as a way of thanking ‘Calamity Clegg’ for giving them special status – by ridding the Duchy of his long-established Lib Dem MPs and installing their own brand of nationalists in their place.

What seems obvious to all but the Westminsterites is that the ruling class have failed properly to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. With the possible exception of the military, the whole job lot have been found wanting. Even the Church has been shockingly compromised, with children’s homes being added to the time-honoured choirboy repertoire by predatory priests.

The Westminster Village clique are hated for their highhandedness – their unprincipled, venal use of taxpayers’ money and their lack of understanding of what this recession has done to the middle classes. Only last year they accepted a pay rise greater by far than they imposed on the rest of their public sector comrades and billed the five-year-long recession-crucified taxpayer an amount for expenses even bigger than the great expenses year scandal that so shattered their egos a few years ago. Many MPs have not forgiven the press for that excruciating public exposure.

Also hated by many are the police. A long list of terrible failures, from Hillsborough right through to Jimmy Savile, have doomed them. As I write this article it is reported that Cressida Dick, of the appalling, seven-shots-to-the-head Stockwell underground shooting of the innocent Brazilian Charles de Mendez, is to be honoured in the New Year’s Day Honours List. Since that terrible day she has gone from promotion to promotion. Are they intent on rubbing our noses in it to show how truly impotent we, the public, really are? And what about those theatrical, scandalous celebrity dawn raids on suspects’ homes? And their even more scandalous abuse of police bail, whereby they keep them under that career-destroying shadow for anything up to a year before, in most cases, releasing them?

The judiciary have fared little better. They are hated for their secret courts; their refusal to return murderers and rapists to their countries of origin; as well as its lawyers who, at vast public expense, fight for these criminals to stay here to the tune of £millions.

And let’s not forget either the town halls. Once the Town Clerk was a respected figure. Now his grandly titled successor, the CEO (they do love these self-important terms, don’t they, even having their own ‘Cabinets’) expects to be paid twice what the PM is paid, and their minions similarly rewarded. These obscenely paid jobsworths wouldn’t last one minute in the private sector. I doubt if more than a thimbleful of them would get shortlisted even for a job interview. While looking after themselves, they happily dispense with large numbers of their own, and as many of the more sensitive public services, as they can get away with. The idea being, of course, to discredit the whole notion of economies and getting value for money, as every household has had to do for years.

In similarly low esteem are the Revenue Collectors. The public despise them for their cowardly ‘sweetheart deals’, sucking-up-to and leniency towards the likes of Google, Starbucks and the rest while they mercilessly traduce the public. Even now they are laying plans to lift thousands out of individuals’ bank accounts without so much as a by-your-leave, never mind a court order.

But most of all the public hate the bankers, whom many believe brought us to this sorry pass. They blame them for leading this shameless descent into amorality and corrupt practices. These same miscreants still insist they are worth their obscene bonuses. Not a single one of the banks’ crooks is behind bars, and yet we know that criminality on an industrial scale was rife and that the sums involved ran to hundreds of billions. Compared to these Libor rate fixings, mis-sold PPI policies and companies deliberately driven into bankruptcy in order to asset strip them, anything that certain sections of the press did was trivial and small beer – regrettable though it was. Indeed, these banker boys never do or did anything at the petty level. It was they, after all, that managed the extraordinary feat of nearly crashing the entire global financial system. Millions went on the dole and the public was plunged into the misery of a five-year fightback right across the developed world to restore normality after having had hundreds of billions sequestered to prop up a bankrupt system which was judged ‘too big to fail’ and faced, in the process, a decade of falling living standards. How nice to be a bank and run a business where no matter what you do you never have to face the consequences. Even better is that when you make a cock-up and your criminality is exposed, you get away with it with barely a slap on the wrist and expect to be rescued and given another chance.

Not so lucky were the journos. While not for one minute did our Dave consider employing the majesty of the law to find out what went wrong with banking, name names and expose the culprits, the journos of the press – who had so embarrassed his Westminster chums – would have to face that majesty in their place. It was payback time. Into the frame stepped the infamous Leveson Inquiry. Andy Coulson and many of his associates went to Choky and continue to do so. Meanwhile those same banker chums continue to traipse in and out of Downing Street as though nothing ever happened, and in numbers greater than all the rest of British industry and commerce put together (which shows who’s got the ear of the ‘posh boys’, doesn’t it, and why they will never have to wear prison blue).

So, come May, don’t be surprised if this anti-establishment backlash assumes massive proportions and brings a dramatic reversal to years of falling voter turnout when ‘the plebs’ set out to overturn the establishment’s applecart. Either that or it will be close to a boycott if they decide en masse to stay away, taking the view that their votes will change nothing: ‘A plague on all your houses!’

Traditionally any leader presiding over such a climb-back from certain catastrophe, boasting 1.75 million new jobs and facing an opposition leader so utterly devoid of anything associated with leadership, could expect to be massively ahead in the polls. Yet Cameron is not. Something very strange is going on out there.

In all these musings I have said not a word about what is happening in the broader world, and surely they are terrible. No pundit either, in that confused and bloody mayhem, can point to a way out. That subject must be for another article. But for us, in the meantime, let’s raise our glasses for this New Year of 2015 and pray that answers will be found abroad too. We can take genuine pride in having overtaken France to be the world’s 5th largest economy, and they say that by 2030 we will have overtaken Germany as well. Glory be! The last time we were there was 1954, but that was because we destroyed most of her economy in WWII. She had originally overtaken us in 1894 and that’s when our troubles really began. Clever, industrious Fritz got too big for his jackboots.

What if WWI never happened?

How might the world have looked but for that cataclysmic conflict which began almost a hundred years ago? Mighty different, I can tell you. It is highly unlikely we would have a United Nations since only a catastrophe on a planet-wide scale could have caused countries to submit themselves in the future to a supra-national authority.

A Different World

How might the world look today but for that cataclysmic conflict which began almost a hundred years ago?

There would be no Arab-Israeli conflict and, as a result of that, no 9/11. We would be boarding aircraft in pretty much the relaxed way we used to, with none of the demeaning scrutiny and security measures we have now. There would have been no Cold War and as a consequence of that no mad rush to be the first to land a man on the moon. Because the Second World War was the unfinished business of the first, rocketry was given priority by the Germans as a possible war-winning technology and without that impetus space technology would be way, way behind where it is today. We might not even have those satellites circling the earth which give us GPS, satellite television and so much else. Computer technology – also hastened by war – would still be in its infancy and the World Wide Web would be non-existent. The whole business of electrical miniaturization on which just about everything today depends received a major shot in the arm by the space effort. Of course we would have got there in the end but it would have been at a much more leisurely pace.  

In geopolitical terms, the landscape would be just as dramatically different. There would be no European Union since it was only the trauma of the two World Wars which caused Europeans to think there had to be a better way. We would probably still rule India and most of the other European empires would be staggering on, though under rising pressure for emancipation along with us.  Russia would have evolved from a tsarist autocracy into a fully fledged democratic state. All the fallen monarchies of Europe – the Hapsburgs of Austria/Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, he Tsar of Russia and even the Sultan of Turkey would still be in place along with a clutch of Balkan princlings. It is likely, though, that most of them would have had their wings clipped democratically.

But the Emperor of China would still be gone. He went three years before the Great War started, discredited by his inability to prevent China’s humiliations by the European colonial powers. But the new China would have had a Japanese experience; it would have taken the Japanese approach of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and industrialised like mad. Today, most probably, it would be the top economic as well as military power in the world with Uncle Sam as No. 2. It would have avoided the trauma of the Mao experience and be like Japan, a democratic state. Britain’s colossal overseas investments – all lost to war – along with her staggering land holdings around the world would have been deployed to who knows what ends. They might even have allowed her to stay top dog.

All in all it would have been an utterly different landscape from the one we see around us today. It would not necessarily have been a better world since many of the less salubrious features of the old world would not have been swept away and there would have been umpteen disputes leading to what may be described as bush-fire wars.

As for no conflict with the Muslim world, that is because there would be no state of Israel. If there was any conflict it would be with their Ottoman overlords – it would be them, not us, taking the flak. It was Britain’s seizure of Palestine and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire along with its foreign secretary’s promise to allow a home for Jews in the Holy Land which made the creation of Israel possible. He had no idea it would lead to the dispossession of millions of Arabs from their ancestral lands. This, above all else, is what drives the Jihadists today along with Western military intervention in Muslim affairs. They take the view that it was not a kind-hearted act on the part of Britain regarding Jews – which in fact it was – but a calculated move to plant a Trojan Horse in their midst which would do the West’s bidding and help it keep control of them.

One of the consequences of the two World Wars was to so weaken and discredit the European powers that it hastened the end of their empires. Had the people of the various empires gained their freedom at a more leisurely pace – perhaps as much as a century later – there would have been more time to prepare cadres of their people and put institutions in place which could have avoided the shambles we saw following the rush to independence after the war. Africa, today, with its boundless resources, might perhaps be a well-governed and prosperous continent

But war did hasten the end of deference – à la Downton Abbey – and dispose, in the process, of autocratic monarchies. Only in the victor or neutral states did they survive. Interestingly, not a single state which abolished its monarchy has had a change of heart and reinstated it. I suppose that is our fate when something cataclysmic comes along one day to discredit our own monarchy.

Apart from the most obvious ones – the advancement of science, the UN and the EU – the other major beneficiary of war has been the emancipation of women. Oddly, it was not the dictatorships with their powers of compulsion (the USSR was an exception) which were the earliest and most successful in harnessing the abilities of the fair sex, but the elective dictatorships of the West. Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, was always bemoaning the Reich’s slowness in this crucial field to his boss.

British weather? Don’t knock it!

Two Saturday afternoons ago I parked my bottom on the window sill of the Sir Joshua Reynolds pub opposite my shop basking in the hot sunshine of that early October afternoon (between customers, of course). It caused me to reflect on the vagaries of our famous – or should I say infamous – climate. During that week we had had some truly miserable weather, even the day before. It struck me as not surprising that weather is so often our opener in engaging with a friend or acquaintance whom we might bump into. All four seasons can be hand in a single day. I remember in August being astonished to see hailstones.

When I lived in South Africa during the early 70s, I used to make a point in the early days of walking the streets in the blazing sunshine, avoiding protective canopies that most shops offered. I was truly a Noel Coward’s ‘ go out in the midday sun’ wally. It didn’t last. In no time I found myself dodging from one bit of shade to the next. I remember clearly one day cursing the unremitting blaze and thinking how wonderful it would be to have leaden skies and even a gentle drizzle. The point about all this is that, as with almost everything, you can have too much of a good thing. It is not that we don’t enjoy our share of sunshine; it’s just that we don’t get as much as some. But the upside of this is that when sunshine days do arrive we fully appreciate them and know how to make the most of them.

Endlessly sunny days cause them eventually to pass unnoticed. There is little point in studying the weather since it is almost always the same. This was the case here in the UK during that freakish summer of 1976; there was no sense then even remarking on it to a friend as it would be tiresome. How many mornings can you say ‘lovely day, isn’t it?’ when perhaps you’ve had the better part of a hundred of them.

Ours is a gentle, no-extremes climate. Winters are mild and summers don’t cause you to drip sweat. How my own Lithuanian wife loves having turned her back on a climate where for months on end the stat. stays below zero, often many digits below. We may have had a pretty ropey summer, but hey, we had a sunshine Olympics, didn’t we? And who would exchange what we had for the blistering scorcher that laid waste two thirds of the United States, turning it into a dust bowl and utterly destroying their food crops? And who wants the bush fires currently raging in New South Wales on the other side of the world? We don’t have earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, whiteouts or indeed anything that smacks of disaster. Even our floods are small beer compared with what Australia (Queensland), Pakistan and Bangladesh had recently. Instead we have our gentle, reliable, temperate climate that allows us to grow just about anything.

Dreamers among the old folk, ready to retire, fantasise about the grass being greener in the other field and head for the ‘Club Med’ countries. But apart from economic mismanagement making them a disaster area, with their properties plummeting in value, the grass is most decidedly not greener, but parched for much of the year. Those glorious, verdant landscapes of the British Isles must seem like a distant memory, and that much thirsted after sun nothing but a boring, skin-destroying nuisance that won’t give you a break. And what a risk they take health wise. At the very time in life when good health cannot be taken for granted and maladies pile up, they put themselves beyond the protective reach of the NHS.

As for having a good old yap with the locals as you go about your business, forget it. That too is not so easy when they speak their language and not yours. And participating in their world by learning their lingo is also not so easy when you’ve got a tired old brain to do it with. For me, I’m happy to settle for this beautiful island which the whole world admired so much during this festive year. When those glorious sunshine days, like that one two Saturdays ago, come I grab them with both hands and look forward to the next. And if from time to time you feel cheated and feel that you haven’t had quite enough of them? Well, there’s always those package holidays that can whisk you away to sunnier climes for not a lot more than it would cost you to stay at home.

For the longer term, if global warming heats us by a degree or two extra I won’t be complaining. They say that olive trees and vineyards will prosper again as they did in Roman Britain. Whoopee! Pity though that I won’t be around to see it. But if future generations are constrained economically and have to live in a world of making do with less and can never again enjoy the boom times of yesteryear, then a hotter Britain – freak weather phenomena notwithstanding – may at least be some small compensation.

Defusing the ticking NHS timebomb

Immigration is a matter of very great concern to us as it has placed huge pressures on all of our public services.

It has even, some would argue, started to erode some of our core British values.

When numbers equivalent to a city the size of Plymouth come into our country each year, it is natural that people tend to become alarmed. Yet I have had an experience this week which has opened my eyes to one important aspect of it.

Having hammered my knees over a lifetime, I needed to get them replaced. The first to receive the treatment was done twenty months ago (successfully, I might add). Ever the glutton for punishment, I pressed on.

It’s a big op, I have to admit, and the aftermath is painful; but what’s a bit of short-term suffering against a very great and long-term gain? Thus I tried to persuade myself, for I knew what I was letting myself in for the second time round.

Everyone will have to cope with clapped out and painful joints as they grow older. The lucky ones, in my view, are the ones where this happens early as they get them replaced. The less fortunate soldier on with their dodgy parts until it is too late… they are too old.

They have to watch the sprightly oldies – with their joints replaced – enjoying full and pain-free mobility while they struggle on with sticks and, if they can afford them, mobility scooters.

I opted to go to the Peninsula Treatment Centre. There, I was surrounded by a mini United Nations.

There were Filipinos, South Africans, Chinese, Jamaicans, Zambians, Polish, Romanians, Germans, French, Zimbabweans, Bulgarians – oh, and yes, one or two Brits. They all spoke excellent English and the service that I received was top-draw.

As a team they were magnificent. If only the UN, away in New York, could perform so harmoniously. Even the building and the standard of cleanliness were beyond compare.

Altogether it was a great experience. It makes you think, doesn’t it? It would not be over-egging it to say that if you’d kept these people out of our country then we would be shooting ourselves in the foot.

In the higher echelon skills at Peninsula, East Europe seemed to have excelled itself. The Communists got many things wrong, but education was not one of them.

I have reason to know this at first-hand. My Lithuanian, university-educated wife (fluent in three languages) is a constant reminder. She even helps me with my crosswords – would that I could do the same with hers – and she sometimes assists with a point of grammar. English was her subject at uni, you see.

It would be no exaggeration to say that if all these superb people were removed from Peninsula it would have to shut down. Who then would be the loser?

Of course, you will have noticed that they all spoke good English and for the most part were highly skilled. This is the road we must go down: cherry-picking the best who want to join us.

As it happens we are the destination of first choice to these people because of our language, law-driven society and tolerance; they are not the sort of people who want to be holed up in some kind of ghetto, insulated from the rest of us.

It was a very big mistake to allow the mantra of diversity to shut down discussion as to how we could best integrate newcomers to these shores, and in this respect there is much the Americans could teach us.

Last week I bumped into a fellow shopkeeper and he too had had both knees renewed. They had been done the better part of twenty years ago and he wasn’t even using a stick. He is 91.

Instead of feeling that he had been put out to pasture, he has been allowed to remain a vibrant member of, and contributor to, our local community.

This has to be the future… keeping as many of us as possible active into old age. But it has to start much earlier than our 91-year-old shopkeeper, that’s for sure.

The wonderful new £41.5m Life Centre, opened this week in Plymouth, is certainly a step in the right direction.

All of us must take charge of our own well being, wherever possible, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in so doing. But those of us who are not prepared to invest in a healthier, happier future must be brought to see how very foolish this is.

We know we can successfully influence people’s life choices. Look what we did in turning attitudes around with regard to smoking and drink driving.

The ticking NHS time bomb of an ageing population could, in large measure, be defused if we could all be persuaded to get off our derrieres and get moving. Preventative medicine has the potential to free up possibly a quarter of all our hospital beds and allow us, in the process, to lead happier, healthier and more productive lives.

If the recession causes us to cut our supermarket food bills, so much the better, say I.

Instead of so many old people feeling surplus to requirements, they would become a valued and much needed part of society.

We British usually appreciate being the first recipients of most things coming over ‘the pond’. But I did not appreciate learning that, after the Americans, we are the next most obese people in the developed world. As it happened, not long after learning that, I watched newsreel footage of our people in the 1940s and 50s. Do you know, I couldn’t see a fatty among them?

Food rationing had done its work and made us the healthiest we had ever been; they all looked leaner, fitter and, I have to say, altogether merrier.

Although the treatments available to them, at that time, were primitive by our standards, at least they weren’t imposing a burden on their fellow citizens, because of their super indulgent, lazy lifestyle. They were all pulling their weight – just not so much of it.

Time, may I suggest, to turn our guns on the fatties amongst us!

Words can hurt more than sticks and stones

I knew a man once, a very dear friend, who was in a horrendously abusive marriage.

The abuse came in the form of the language which was deployed against him by his wife. To be sure, it wasn’t only that; there was violence too, but it was the language that was the most alarming.

I know this because he felt that no one could possibly believe how depraved and evil it was unless they could actually hear a recording, and that he duly made; several of them. I was stunned.

The recordings were full of the vilest language our otherwise beautiful tongue has yet conjured up. Truly, soldiers and sailors in their billets or berths couldn’t have ‘bettered’ it.

I asked him why he didn’t get out of it and he replied that he didn’t want to lose his children. What could I say to that? He was of the opinion that there is a gap in the law which fails to recognise verbal violence as being as damaging, in many respects, as physical.

As a boy we got used to the corny old saying ‘sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me’. Yet, as we grew older we came to see this for the absolute nonsense it was.

It was perfectly possible not so many years ago to say just about anything you wanted to say: it was called Freedom of Speech, and that ‘holy cow’ allowed us to call people spastics, coons, yids, mental retards, Nancy boys, cripples and an endless repertoire of other demeaning terms.

Look, for example, at what passed for entertainment on the television. Alf Garnett at bay in Till Death Do Us Part or the ‘funny’ man Bernard Manning in full flow.

It took us a long time, but we came to realise that such bigoted, verbal diarrhoea could not be tolerated in a civilised society. Freedom of Speech had to have some limits. It could not be used to pillory and degrade minorities. We actually had long before come to recognise that when we created the law of blasphemy.

To say that words cannot hurt is to state the purest form of rubbish possible. Words can scar (for life); they can destroy self esteem; humiliate and degrade; crush the spirit; and can even drive a person mad.

Although referring to language’s written form, its message holds true even in the spoken form. ‘The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.’

Language is the most powerful weapon we can ever deploy against a person.

Not before time, society set about addressing this very real problem in its midst. And so a whole new industry was born: it is called ‘political correctness’, although in many of its aspects it might, more accurately, be described as ‘behavioural correctness’.

Few would deny that we were right to tackle this cruel form of abuse and are the better for having done so.

Only verbal abuse of the elderly is still permitted and I worry at what it says about us that we have allowed this most vulnerable sector of our society – the one to which we owe everything we have – to remain almost the last to receive such protection.

Like all new industries, the people whose jobs depend on it feel they have to keep up the momentum; justify, if you like, their existence. They spread the net wider and wider and probe into the most unlikely and deepest of recesses looking for that ever more elusive injustice.

If things go on as they are we may arrive at a situation where we are afraid to open our mouths lest we commit a felony.

The free flow of conversation itself may end up being imperilled as we put ourselves on mental override before we release our thoughts to a live audience.

I feel the time has come to put a brake on this whole burgeoning industry of political correctness.

Yes, we were right to look at all aspects of how we do things and what we say. Fairness and equality, along with tolerance, must always remain central to our way of thinking. But we are in danger, as always, of allowing the locomotive to run out of control.

It is interesting to note that we are not alone in wrestling with these thorny problems. The French are about to abolish the term ‘mademoiselle’ at the very time we are about to ban ‘Mrs’ on all government documents. Should the quaint term ‘Spinster’, still featured at every Registry Office, also be consigned to the dustbin of history?

While a very necessary transformation has taken place, it is important that we don’t end up making fools of ourselves and creating a lawyers’ paradise where all concerned argue, ad nauseam, as to whether offense was intended and the law breached.

Things are getting sillier by the minute.

Is it sensible to ban wolf whistles? Who will know which navvy among the many was the culprit? In any case, where’s the offence? My ex used to love it when she walked past a building site. She was guaranteed one every time.

Whilst not ordinarily in favour of any governmental expansion (in fact I am in favour of the reverse) I might be prepared to consider one exception: a new Ministry of Common Sense.

The new Plympton library

After the devastating fire at Plympton library four years ago, a phoenix of a new library has arisen: 50% bigger and incorporating all the latest must-haves in a modern library. At a time when libraries across the land are being closed due to austerity cutbacks, this is serendipity of the highest order.

All this week there are events, and on Thursday it is authors’ day. I have been much privileged to be asked to contribute on that day. But what shall I speak about? My book, of course, but I shall also speak about children’s issues since it is much of what the book is about.

In researching the book, I came across a startling set of statistics; they relate to a recent UNICEF report. It stated that 60% of children passing through the present childcare system grow up to be either criminals, homeless or suicidal. And we must not assume that the other 40% have made successful lives for themselves; more probably they have muddled through and simply don’t qualify for a place in that terrible roll-call of tragedy.

These figures caused me to consider the fate of the Foundling Hospital children of which I was one. They were taken into care as weeks’ old babies, fostered out for their first five years and then sent to the hospital for their next ten.

The hospital, now called Coram after its 17th century founder, Captain Thomas Coram, has an association called the Old Coram Association (OCA) which encourages old boys and girls to keep in touch with each other. It publishes a twice-annual magazine and stages umpteen gatherings each year at its central London headquarters.

What emerges through all this communication is that, for all its faults, the hospital’s children made infinitely more successful lives for themselves than is the case with today’s deprived children. So what is going on?

Foundling children were institutionalised at a very tender age; they were subject to the harshest and most disciplinarian of regimes – although, it has to be said, no harsher than many of the country’s top public schools of the time – and should, therefore, be prime candidates for a failed life. They didn’t even know who their mother and father were, or even what their real name was (a new one was given them by the hospital). Yet despite all these things they have become, for the most part, loving parents and successful people.

The only conclusion that I and other ‘old boys’ can reach is that the hospital’s policy of fostering them out for their first five years saved the day. Children are tougher and more resilient than we often give them credit for. Having been surrounded by love and security since babyhood, they were able to survive the rigours of what was to become. But what they cannot survive is a messed up, abusive early start to life: nothing and nobody can undo such damage inflicted so early. If this is true – and all the evidence points to this being the case – then it seems to me that we have to move fast and adopt a much more hands-on approach where babies at risk are concerned.

The rights of parents absolutely have to come secondary to those of the child. It is well known that social services will bend over backwards and go to incredible lengths to keep mother and child together. And by the time they wake up to the reality of the relationship it is, in almost all cases, too late. The child is irredeemably scarred.

If it becomes apparent that the parent, or parents, for whatever reason cannot provide stability, love and a decent standard of care then I believe the baby should be removed as a matter of urgency and placed in an environment where it has all of these things. Intervention at the earliest point – once the facts have been established – is of the absolute essence. Who would deny that if such a policy had been in place for poor Baby P, he would not be alive today?

I would not even be averse to sending them, during term time, to a school such as the Foundling Hospital – ran with all its stunning facilities. There, in today’s world, they could be guaranteed a standard of education second to none. Think of the pressure cooking excellence that a live-in school bestows. And don’t say ‘yes, but it would be cruel to send them off from their home during term time’. Isn’t this exactly what the elite of our country have done for centuries and continue to spend thousands of pounds doing? Sending them at the tender age of eight from the far flung outposts of empire in times past, not to see their parents for years, never mind every school holiday?

Armed with this very superior education, wouldn’t society have gone a very long way not just in saving them, but off-setting the sadness of the loss of their own inadequate parents?

If you can spare some time to join with me, we can discuss some of these very important issues. I can also answer any of your questions with regard to my book. The opportunity comes at 2.30pm at Plympton Library on Thursday 9th February. Another local writer, John White, who writes military and political thrillers, will also be there.

Oldies, arise!

Like most Oldies, I have been reluctant to embrace new technology – especially electronics such as the mobile and the computer. But I have benefited in combating my reluctance with the aid of those more in the know: my children.

The first of my four came when I was twenty-nine and the last when I was forty-eight. I don’t think my last missed out too much by having a middle-aged dad though, since I was running the Physique & Figurama gym at Derry’s Cross and so was much more physically active than most men my age. I even think he may have gained a little by having a dad whose temper had been calmed by the years. But still, he wouldn’t let me move towards that ‘dark night’ of old age gracefully. He would tell me if my sartorial tastes let him down and he pressed me in matters hi-tech.

While writing my book I used to write the first draft each day in longhand before I turned to typing it in the second draft. My youngest was aghast at such an antiquarian approach, reproaching me by saying that he wouldn’t be surprised to find me at it one day with a quill! So the laptop it had to be, and the last two thirds of the book saw the longhand disappear.

What made my initial approach so nonsensical was that, having worked in journalism in my early life, I knew how to touch-type. But it mustn’t seem that the boy was always having a go at me, for there was always a point to his complaints. And another of his moans was the way I refused to take advantage of new technologies like the mobile.

I only used it for its most basic functions; I didn’t even know how to add new phone entries! I will admit that I was cross at myself for being such a shrinking violet in coming to grips with its many possibilities. But by the time my third upgrade came along I decided to do something about it. I would make it my toy, and every time I had a few minutes to kill I would use them to try to get to grips with it. In no time at all I had got my head round its more complex functions, such as its calendar and camera. It wasn’t so difficult and I got to understand why all the youngsters (numbers of whom I suspected were denser even than myself!) managed so well.

Another ‘hi-tech’ area my boy encouraged me to get into was digitisation: converting all my old analogue memories, including my increasingly tatty 50-year-old scrapbook, into digital files and folders on a computer.

It saddened me to see how faded and scruffy my scrapbook pages and images had become; but by digitising them – which even included restoring images to their former glory – I had preserved them for eternity. And what’s more, my youngest uploaded the digital scrapbook to the internet so now all my friends and family can access it via this blog – another fine 21st century communication tool he has encouraged me to embrace.

VHS tapes, cassettes, photos and other analogue mementos are just as vulnerable to age as you and I. But while our shift from analogue to digital technologies certainly isn’t good news for E.T. (since digital TV signals are much weaker and aerials broadcasting them are typically pointed towards Earth rather than outer space), we Earthlings are now able to preserve our precious family memories as though they were set in aspic.

So all you oldies out there – who managed so well in your day with such a bewildering range of challenging electronics – should know that you can still cut the mustard, if you’re minded to. It’s just a state of mind. All you have to do is go for it! You might even surprise yourself as I did.

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