Category Archives: society

Trust the evidence: flying is safe

One of the worst aspects of this terrible tragedy is that the grieving families of Flight 9525 passengers have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

One of the worst aspects of the recent Alps tragedy is that the grieving families of passengers have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

We have all been shocked to the core at the terrible tragedy which unfolded last week in the French Alps. It is the stuff of nightmares: a deranged madman propelling us forward to an inevitable and horrible death. While millions place their lives regularly in the hands of the airlines, a surprising number do so with the utmost reluctance. The reason they do so is that they recognise it is the only practical way of getting to distant, exotic places and that the urge manages to override their fears.

We heed, as best we can, the mass of statistical evidence which says that flying is safe. As I write, 9,000 passenger aircraft are in the skies of the world carrying a population the size of Manchester. All will arrive safely. When 9/11 struck and the order went out to ground all aircraft, private as well as civil, 5,000 aircraft were in the skies of North America.

The loss of two Malaysian aircraft, and this recent German one in what seems like quick succession, has evoked all our ancient, primeval fears of doing such unnatural things as soaring high in the sky. ‘That’s for the birds,’ we think. Evolution, after all, has hardwired us to fear heights as a terrestrial animal, and it takes a supreme effort of will to set such fears aside. I am myself full of irrational fears and contradictions. What do you make of a man who flew his own hang glider yet is anxious about trusting his lot to an airline pilot? The pilot’s machine is infinitely safer and better maintained, and his skills in the air immeasurable better, yet still I preferred to rely on myself.

We have come a long way since those first spluttering engines of World War One with their rickety airframes and fresh air environment. They were the true heroes of flying, not us. Accident by accident over these hundred years, we have investigated the causes of failures. And modification by modification, aircraft have been brought to the point where almost nothing remains to be discovered.

The machines we put into the air today are almost as safe as the birds which evolution perfected. In fact it is possible to argue that in some important respects they are safer. Birds regularly fall out of the sky with heart or other physiological failures. On long migrations, they fail through weariness or failure to anticipate the weather. Sometimes they fail to gain the height necessary to carry them over mountain ranges. Planes almost never fail on any of these counts. Moreover, aircraft are able to fly over 13 times the speed of the fastest birds, which, as it happens, nest on the cliffs of Cornwall. Even as long ago as World War Two we were well on our way. Look how many shot-up bombers were still able to limp home, so much were their aircrafts miracles of engineering.

It is a fact that if we are to fear anything today it is ourselves. By far the majority of accidents are human error. Electrical, structural, mechanical and computer, they are all a lot sounder than the frailty of human nature. We have pretty well guaranteed physical soundness, but this recent tragedy in the Alps has highlighted how far we are from understanding the vagaries of the mind.

Few air disasters have been more shocking than this one. When Pan American airlines was blown from the skies over Lockerbie, disaster came like a thief in the night but with no suffering. Death, or at least unconsciousness, was instant. The same is true of the recent Ukrainian tragedy. What unfolded over the Alps were minutes of utmost terror and a final few seconds of unimaginable horror.

This nightmarish scenario was compounded at ground level. When the bodies at Lockerbie and Ukraine fell from their destroyed aircraft, they travelled to earth at terminal velocity of a falling object (120 mph) and for the most part, remained intact. When the poor souls of Germanwings Flight 9525 impacted the ground, they did so at 330 mph and were shattered on impact. Even the metallic parts of the aircraft suffered a similar fate. It was next to impossible for a visitor to the scene to know that this mass of debris had once been an aircraft. A mountain of unidentifiable, desiccated body parts were scattered over a square mile of mountainside. Consequently, one of the worst aspects of this terrible tragedy is that the grieving families have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

Lufthansa will have much to answer for when the final reckoning takes place. It appears their vetting system was so inadequate that it allowed an individual with a long history of mental instability to slip the net and fly their aircraft.

While we all place great importance on patient confidentiality, it appears the Germans are almost paranoiac about it. This, where certain occupations are concerned, will have to change as I believe it will worldwide. A duty needs to be placed on all doctors, which has the force of law, requiring them to inform a patient’s employer the moment they believe their patient unfit to fly an aircraft. The same should apply to train and coach drivers.

At some point in the not too distant future, we are going to have to accept that ground control will get you to your destination and back, as it has long done on far more complicated missions into space. Already our drones daily take off, complete their missions and return safely to earth. Once again, it is an irrational, primitive belief that only a man up front can be given ultimate responsibility. When we have grown used to safely journeying in our cars by automated, driverless systems – which is coming sooner than we think – then we may start to believe that the same technology can be applied to the air. Such systems are already feasible in our towns and cities and will soon be trialled here in the UK. It is only human irrationality which is slowing the process. When accidents and fatalities are seen to have been driven down close to zero with machines in control, then perhaps we may summon up the courage to trust the machine more than the man.

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Gay schools aren’t the answer

If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream.

If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream.

I was taken aback recently to learn of a serious proposal to set up a school for Gays. While a firm supporter of not stigmatising minorities – as a child of an unmarried mother at a time such things were scandalous, I know just what that means – I felt that this was simply a bridge too far. In fact I believe it could be counter-productive, harming the very people it was designed to protect; a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. Humans across the world belong to a single family. If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream and create an environment in which they circulate for substantial and formative periods only among people of their own preferences you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream. We know the aims of Gays in making this proposal are laudable; they wish to experience and benefit from an education free from the slings and arrows of a taunting minority. But the answer, I fear, is not to remove them from the orbit of the bullies but to bear down and educate bullies into accepting that it is they – the bully – not their victim, who is the problem. It was never more clear to me than during my army service in Northern Ireland that if people are ghettoed from their fellows they will not relate to them and, as a consequence, would be capable of doing terrible things. And there, job discrimination was total – in schools, churches, policing, pubs, town halls, housing and just about anything else you could think of. The first question that any employer asked of you was, “are you Catholic or Protestant?” We saw in blood where that led.

Social attitudes can be turned full circle. We know this from things we have already achieved. Do you remember that ‘Carry On’ film in which a partying group of young medics came out and piled into an open-topped sports car and roared off? The noisy, raucous group were all the worse for drink. We thought, at the time, it very funny and so did the producer. Neither he nor we would think that now. In fact we are appalled that we ever thought it so. In similar vein was the ubiquitous glamorising of smoking on the silver screen. Also, look at our previous indifference to the disabled; we never bothered to put wheelchair access into anything. Then, just let a landlord – as happened when I first lived and worked in London – try putting in his window a sign reading ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. All hell would break loose. Women’s prospects have improved immeasurably from what they were and so have peoples’ of other races. I could go on. Indeed, some might argue that in today’s Britain your life chances might be improved if you were not of Caucasian stock. Racial, religious, gender and disabled abuse have all joined the bonfire of the unacceptable, as has hate language. Also that pernicious culture of being able to touch women up and, worse, and get away with it is thankfully at an end, though I do wonder if we are right in pursuing old men to the grave. But I acknowledge that justice must trump everything and you could argue that they were lucky to have got away with it for as long as they did before justice finally caught up with them. Finally, while we’re at it, let’s remember that poor unmarried mother whose family once turfed her out. That was not a million miles removed from stoning her.

My point in highlighting all this is to show that Europe in times past – often with us as flag-bearer – has had very backward attitudes. In addition to this we have been exceptionally cruel, physically as well as emotionally. It therefore ill behoves us, as we make progress, to lambast the Muslim world for its tardiness. The whole world hardly needs to take lessons from us in this area. There was a time, which lasted for seven hundred years, when Muslim Spain led the world in virtually all the sciences. While it was rescuing and translating almost all the Greek classics, we were transporting ourselves across the Mediterranean Sea and despoiling their prosperous, peaceable lands in Palestine. Our ‘great’ King Richard (The Lionheart) – who spoke no English and spent only a few months out of his eleven-year reign in England, bankrupting it in the process – wrought such cruelty on Crusade that even today Muslim mothers will quieten their little ones by saying “shhh… King Richard is coming”. He once decapitated 5,000 prisoners on the beach at Acre. Strange it is then that of all our many illustrious monarchs he is the only one honoured with a statue outside Parliament. An unfathomable people we are for making such a judgement. And in terms of cruelty, no Muslim country that I am aware of ever matched our grisly hanging, drawing and quartering routine, nor Bloody Mary’s 300+ burnings at the stake in a five year period, nor Vlad the Impailer’s bestial cruelties, nor the horrors of the 30 Years’ War.

It is very true that we have today a terrible problem – to put it mildly – with certain crazy Muslim men, but we have had our share of crazy men, even if they have not specialised in running wild on the streets with butchers’ knives and Kalashnikovs. The sheer magnitude and level of depraved brutality which our own continent has exhibited throughout the recent century should humble us considerably in our dealings with the rest of humanity. It certainly does not qualify us to hand out advice as though it is coming from on high, and as though we approach the world’s problems with clean hands. However, it is my belief that it is this very barbarism which has made Europe determined to do things differently in the future.

It may not seem so but we are moving into a kinder, more caring world. Not only have we such institutions now as the International Criminal Court, whereby previously unchecked rulers can be held to account, but we show concern and provide help when manmade or natural catastrophe overwhelms one of our brother countries. This is new. Every country now acknowledges that it has a duty to work towards some sort of a welfare state for its people. This, too, is new. Making war without United Nations authorisation is an option becoming increasingly difficult for sovereign states.

Social networking, Skype, emails and the instant availability of facts and information – as well as the next day delivery of goods on eBay and Amazon – makes ours a more joined-up world than it has ever been. And we are only at the beginning. Within three generations, virtually the entire human race will be able to communicate with each other in a universal language. What incredible good fortune that it happens to be our own which will be that medium – and what business opportunities that should present us with if we have the wit to seize them!

Meantime we must hold our nerve as we navigate through what undoubtedly will be treacherous waters, finding ways of containing and then rolling back the bone-headed fanatics who seek excitement on foreign battlefields as well as at home in the misplaced belief that their warped vision is the future. Yet we must do so without compromising our essential liberties and bring our Muslim brothers and sisters on board. Their thinking, young people, in particular, want all the same things we have, including democracy.  We must find ways of getting them to prevail over their rogue elements and bring them on board too.

Viva Las Vegas

I’ve always viewed Las Vegas as a totally artificial construct – something dumped in the middle of the desert and catering to the most vulgar, hedonistic, licentious and tasteless leanings of human nature. In many ways it is these things, but in other important ways it is a great deal more.

I’ve always viewed Las Vegas as a totally artificial construct – something dumped in the middle of the desert and catering to the most vulgar, hedonistic, licentious and tasteless leanings of human nature. In many ways it is these things, but in other important ways it is a great deal more.

I’m sitting here in our bedroom on the 28th floor (top) of the 3,626-bedroomed Flamingo hotel close to the 3,933-bedroomed Bellagio hotel as well as opposite the 3,960-bedroomed Caesar’s Palace hotel on Las Vegas’ famous ‘Strip’. What brings me to this exotic location is an invitation from an award-winning San Francisco broadcaster to talk about my recently released book. My wife and I thought it would be an opportunity lost if we didn’t see as many sights as possible of the western US, and Las Vegas is the jumping off place for the Grand Canyon. These three hotels alone, according to our tour driver, have more rooms than all of San Francisco’s put together. Vegas is awash with them and these three represent only the smaller part of an incredible total.

I’ve always viewed Las Vegas as a totally artificial construct – something dumped in the middle of the desert and catering to the most vulgar, hedonistic, licentious and tasteless leanings of human nature. In many ways it is these things, but in other important ways it is a great deal more. My wife and I are not gaming types (never having bought so much as a scratch card or a lottery ticket) and not a nickel slipped through these canny fingers of ours in the three days we have been here. But it is the jumping off place for the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam, and it seemed churlish not to explore this ultimate symbol of western decadence and see if we could discover what makes it tick.

To begin at the beginning, I doubt I shall ever again be assigned a bedroom more palatial than the one we have; it has to be more than twice the size of any other we have stayed in. We showed interest in the receptionist who came from Hong Kong and had a little chat. She told us Hong Kongers yearned for the old days and determinedly kept as many symbols and aspects of their colonial past as the Beijing authorities were prepared to countenance (and actually, as it turns out, it’s quite a few). I think our interest and the fact that we were from the old colonial power was rewarded with this magnificent top floor bedroom with its spectacular views. Considering the amazing online deal my wife got, we were truly lucky.

America, as we all know, is a big country and it likes – wherever possible – to do things big. America also works; it’s rare you encounter anything with an ‘Out of Order’ sign on it or malfunctioning in any way. It also does things in style (the showman is never far away) and here you will find everything, absolutely everything: the good, bad and the ugly. The good – and truth to tell there are so many ‘goods’ – is that it is full of so many unexpected delights. One such is a wonderful water course… one is a fountain display in front of the Bellagio hotel the like of which I have never seen. It must be unequalled in the world. Also, no city on earth brings the wonders of electricity so brilliantly to life. An orbiting visitor from outer space would have to wonder what this incredible glow from the blackness of the surrounding desert was all about.

You might say that a fake volcanic eruption in the giant forecourt of one of the strip’s hotels would have to be tacky. But it is not. It is, in fact, a truly breathtaking spectacle and, like the water display, free. There is, of course, much that is vulgar and much that is kitsch, such as Little Venice, but it is a very superior kitsch. Every single structure is built to the highest order using the best materials and the finest craftsmanship. And everywhere is spotlessly clean. Pity the litter-bug Brit who indulges that particular vice of his: he will be jumped on from a very great height. But make no mistake, this place is about money – as much of the lovely stuff as they can legitimately extract, though I have to say they do not harass you. Prices, with some exceptions, are not extortionate. It took a whole half mile of walking to get through one hotel: MGM and its mall. The walk took us past thousands of games machines, umpteen roulette tables, shops, bars and cafes. Any visitor to Vegas needs first to get in training: the walking will test them to their limit, especially those parts under the blazing sun. What a relief that my two knee replacements had bedded in and that I walk the two-mile journey to my shop and back every day.

We visited in the autumn when temperatures are at their best (the high 20s (75F – 80F). But as states go, Nevada is a poor one – close to desperately poor. As a desert state, it has little or no arable land and precious few minerals. Something had to be done. Thankfully it had the mighty, 1,400-mile-long Colorado River, and on it bounty. Las Vegas became possible as did – 400 miles away – Los Angeles. In my own lifetime, Vegas has grown from a few thousand to 2.1m, and it is still growing apace. It is based almost entirely on the service industry. If our excursion driver to the canyon is to be believed, 90% of its workers are on the minimum wage and, irritatingly to those of us from Europe, he made what we would consider an unseemly powerful pitch to be tipped. It is sad that someone has to abase himself in this way to make a decent living, but probably he doesn’t see it that way as he has been doing it so long and has got used to it. The bogeyman in all this is the employer who, by improper means, gains a cheap workforce. But there’s another way of looking at it. America is famous for its service; everybody is keen to help you, to smile at you, to please you. To them we must extend thanks for causing our supermarket checkout girls and others to stop being surly, to engage with us, look us in the eye and smile at us. May this not in part be because their living is not guaranteed and they need your reward for looking after them?

On reflection, it is not so different in my own little shop. I cannot be indifferent to my customers. I must at all times engage with them and provide the service they are looking for. If I and my wife are now celebrating the 20th anniversary of the shop’s opening, may this not be because we have done this? This grim recession has taken its toll. Perhaps 25% of our takings have been lost, but we are still standing and signs are beginning to look up.

But returning to Las Vegas, and how it seeks to please and relieve you of a dime or two, everything operates on a huge scale. The buildings are ginormous with more shiny glass and steel skyscrapers than you are ever likely to see in one place, except perhaps the Gulf States and some newly built Chinese cities. Although much of Vegas is now 40 years old, it looks remarkably pristine and un-weathered. That’s down to the same desert conditions which helped preserves the pharaohs and their monuments. The place heaves with people, but somehow absorbs them so that they do not seem to be too many. There are masses of Malls so that you will still find wide, empty spaces. Las Vegas is America’s premier playground – it’s guilty secret. Running through the country’s psyche is a vein of Puritanism that includes a loathing of gambling. Even now, a majority of the states ban it. It all goes back to those pilgrims who left my own city of Plymouth almost 400 years ago to create a better England, a New England, in a far-off wilderness across the ocean.

Here in the desert, their descendants have conspired to offer a bit of light relief to those earnest hopes of yesteryear. In the process, they have gone a long way to rescuing their basket-case state. Rich widows come here – some regularly – to spend their husband’s fortunes in the cause of cheering themselves up. Ordinary Americans come here because it’s just one helluva place. Executives come here for conventions, naughtiness and show-time on the side. Outsiders like ourselves come to gawk, and newly-weds for the ‘quickie wedding’. From day one the Mafia made it their home and large dollops of their ill gotten gains have been laundered through it and financed its expansion. Hollywood too, along with its stars, once looked down their noses at Las Vegas, but now play court to it. And above it, all the sun shines down for 320 days of the year. It’s an amazing place, and like Muslims with their religious obligation to visit Mecca once in their life, consumerist Westerners should feel a similar obligation to visit this desert El Dorado: this hedonistic, earthly temple of pleasure.

Incivility in the 21st century

 

A strange thing happened to me the other day, but on reflection perhaps not so strange. I went to say hi to the chairman of my old tennis club as I was travelling close by his house. We were never close but for ten years we were both active participants and would talk between matches . That was twenty five years ago. About five years back he dropped into my shop, not to buy anything but to renew acquaintances, or so I thought. Now I believe it more out of curiosity than anything.

Expecting a civilised reception I was kept on his doorstep just long enough for him to make a factitious remark and for him to say that his wife, Joan, who was also a club member, was doing something on the computer. Here was one old man of long-time acquaintance, reaching out to another old man, only to be given the brush off. Why I say this bleak reception was not so strange is that it speaks perhaps of our inability to relate to each other as we should.

The old club chairman was always given to the patronising put-down, so I was not unduly perturbed that he remained the old unreformed Dave. But, just the same, it got me thinking about the level of incivility that our country so often exhibits in this the 21st century. Once upon a time, each of us knew the names of our close neighbours – surname as well as Christian. As for those mutual visits for ‘cuppas’, they went out of the window eons ago. We really did make an effort to be friends. Gossip used to be rife in those days, most of it harmless stuff but the fact is that it helped to grease the wheels. In truth, people were genuinely interested in their neighbours. It is hard to imagine that so many of these awful present day cases of child abuse as well as neglect would have passed unnoticed. Perhaps another reason we don’t get to know our neighbours is that we don’t bump into them on our walks to the shops. We simply exit our houses at high speed, leap into our car and race off at even higher speed. Rarely a wave do we trouble ourselves with.

So what is it that makes us so distant and seemingly uninterested in those about us? I suspect it has a lot to do with the independence which rising prosperity has given us. It is both a blessing and a curse. The fact is we don’t need each other as once we did, or at least we imagine we don’t. It is interesting to note that the poorer a society is, the closer people are with each other. It is as though adversity brings them together. People of a certain age will often tell you how great the camaraderie was in the years of war and how everybody was everybody else’s friend. Even social class distinctions came close to vanishing. All at that time stood in mortal peril – at least in the cities – and shortages of everything were acute. Even in the years following, when there were only the shortages to deal with, people still went to each other’s help where they could.

But gradually the consumer society took over. In the old days, acquisitiveness was virtually non-existent and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ unheard of. Today, the green eyed monster looms over every neighbourhood and further divides people. My wife, who endured many more years of deprivation (under Communism) than we did in the West, tells me that one of the saving graces – and there were not many – of the old USSR was that right to the end people helped one another. They knew their problems and provided that most essential of palliatives: a shoulder to cry on.

If possessions and acquisitiveness is part of the problem – perhaps the major part – it is hard to see things getting better any time soon. It is a fact that the larger the city, the lonelier you can feel. In that case more is very much less. Perhaps we in Plymouth should take comfort from the fact that we are not too big and blessed with a great mix of attractions both natural and manmade. For my own part, I have never regretted picking Plymouth from 25 other cities in 1967 to set up my health club. All of the cities I shortlisted had populations over 200,000 and, at that time, had no health club. I felt certain that that sort of number would guarantee me a good living and so it proved. You should have seen some of those other grim industrial abodes that were on that list. I’m so glad I gave them a miss!

Finally, a grateful thanks to the kind and civic-minded person who, following my most recent column in The Plymouth Herald gave us back those lamented flowers in Ridgeway’s five tubs.

Have the years in Downing Street addled the PM’s brain?

I am glad the government has banned that sinister-looking council vehicle going round with a camera on the top. We all had deep misgivings about Google trundling round photographing everything in sight, but at least that wasn’t a means of filching money out of our ever more depleted pockets and there were many clear positives to the whole operation.

Ours is the most spied on country in the whole world and, to our shame, that includes N. Korea. What is it about those in authority over us that they treat us as they do? Is it that they don’t trust us? They’ll have plausible answers of course – they always do. Not the least of them is that catch-all one of ‘combating terrorism’. But we combated IRA terrorism for thirty years without compromising our essential liberties.

We have to be very careful about going down the path of the surveillance state. The powers-that-be, including the town halls, seem to relish lording it over us – watching our every move, socially engineering us, politically correcting us, and nannying us with a patronising ‘you know it’s all for your own good… don’t get yourself worked up’ sort of attitude. The fact is we are right not to trust them; all the time they are taking liberties with our liberties.

The Cameron government promised more openness. ‘Transparency’ was the word. And all the while the Court of Protection – another Blairite invention – continues on its merry way (except that it isn’t at all merry). Terrible injustices are daily taking place behind closed doors with social workers being treated as if they are expert witnesses and who, in too many cases, are themselves operating behind closed minds. Even the President of the Family Court has expressed his extreme disquiet and called for less secrecy, but still the injustices go on.

David Cameron has called for Magna Carta to be taught to every kid. Is this the same David Cameron who wanted recently, for the very first time in English jurisprudence, to hold a trial so secret that even the very fact that there was to be a trial at all was not to be disclosed? Magna Carta, indeed. Who can forget that cringe-making, toe-curling interview with America’s most famous interviewer, David Letterman, in which the British PM didn’t know what Carta stood for. Eton educated, was he? With a first-class honours degree from Oxford thrown in for good measure? Something went badly wrong there. Even little old me, educated in the Foundling Hospital and at work at fifteen, knew that. Perhaps it is the years in Downing Street that have addled his brain. That hothouse of intrigue and backstabbing must take its toll.

But don’t think me ungracious to our Dave. For all his many deficiencies, he has turned the economy round and we must give him credit for that mighty achievement. There is also a real chance that our kids will stop sliding down the international education league tables and begin the climb northwards. Then there’s that pernicious client state of welfarism that Gordon Brown positively pushed which is being dismantled and a sensible one – such as the Welfare State’s founder, William Beveridge, wanted – being reinstated (but still in a far more generous form than ever he envisaged). So each of these important areas which will determine our nation’s future we must give the present incumbent of Down Street credit for.

A city close to my heart

Although Plymouth has been my home – by choice – now for forty-seven years, there is and will always be another city close to my heart. It is that great throbbing metropolis of London.

I was born there on Grays Inn Road which, on a quiet Sunday, may still be within sound of Bow Bells. If so, that would make me a true Cockney – a born, though not bred, one. Unfortunately the not-bred part renders me incapable of fathoming most of those strange yet endearing Cockney terms.

When I was born in May 1939, London stood on the edge of a cataclysm which would test its metal as much as the plague, the great fire or that earlier fire when Boudicca’s enraged followers torched the Roman city in AD 60. Luckily, when the bombers came, I was safely ensconced forty miles north in the lovely little Essex market town of Saffron Walden. From that area would be assembled the mighty armada of bombers which make good on Churchill’s promise to repay the Luftwaffe with interest tenfold.

When I returned to the city as a sixteen-year-old in 1955 to find a job, it was a sad place. It was not long since its skies had been darkened by Hitler’s bombers. My job was to take news photographs to the art editors of all the leading periodicals and newspapers of the day to see if they were interested in featuring them. The agency was based in Fleet Street. When I stepped out on my rounds I could see the massive structure of St. Paul’s cathedral 500 yards away on the top of Ludgate Hill. To the right and left as you walked up that famous hill was a wasteland of bombed out buildings. Feral cats and other creatures had made the ruins their home. All over Central London, which was my stomping ground, were similar sad sights. I could never quite understand how, amidst such destruction, Wren’s masterpiece had survived. (Later I learned that, apart from an element of luck – which some might prefer to regard as divine intervention – this was because orders had gone out from on high (not that high) that, whatever happened elsewhere, the great cathedral must be saved. The firefighters, therefore, made it their business to prioritise it.)

When I was born, London was the largest city in the world which, perhaps, befitted the world’s largest empire ever. Though today thirty one other cities have overtaken it in numbers, it is still Europe’s largest if you exclude Moscow, which is a Johnny-come-lately having ballooned since the fall of Communism. Before this it was only half London’s size and you needed a permit to go and live there.

When I took up my job, a pall of gloom hung over the city. It was only a decade before that the doodlebugs and V2 rockets had come visiting. We talk of austerity today, but those times knew the real thing: a biting hard period of real deprivation which makes today’s talk sound something of a joke. There was simply not the money to give people a decent life, never mind make good all that bomb damage.

It was a dirty city, too. Those building which had survived were encrusted with a thick, black layer of industrial grime. And the grime was still coming down. Once, I had to get off a bus in Harrow and take my turn to walk in front with a torch to help the driver to avoid mounting the kerb. The smog was so thick you could barely see your feet from a standing position. It was actually quite scary. The dear old Thames, which today is alive with every kind of fish and aquatic creature, was then a dead river.

Unlike Berlin and so many other shattered cities of Europe, London, despite everything, still had a pulse – even a beating heart. But it was weak and its population shrank as so many of its citizens migrated to the leafy suburbs and the new garden cities erected close by. And while all this was going on, the great empire, whose imperial will had reached out from the city across the world, was being disbanded. Truly, it seemed, London’s glory days were over. It would have been a brave pundit who would say it would ever rise again to its former pre-eminence.

Yet hey, that is exactly what has happened. Few would say it was exaggerating to call it the coolest city on the planet. In 2012, with the Olympics, it had the chance to showcase itself like never before in its history. And what a success it made of it. Athletes and visitors alike were stunned at how well that most challenging and complex of events was managed and how beautiful the city had become. Even the sun made a brief appearance, as though to bless our endeavours.  London may not exercise hard power to the extent it once did, but it projects soft power by the shedload.

When I treat myself to a visit, as I like to do every three months or so, I look around and marvel at the transformation that has taken place since I trod it walkways as a youth. As its skyline grows ever more interesting, it remains the financial centre of the world, beating New York, Hong Kong and Singapore to the spot. And its many great parks and myriad little squares have grown even more beautiful. Racial bigotry has all but gone, with no more signs to be seen in landlords’ windows saying ‘No Dogs, Irish or Blacks’. Couples of mixed race walk hand in hand and its streets echo to the sound of dozens of languages. Street cafes are everywhere and British cuisine has been turned on its head. It is now right up there with the best. The city has a multiplicity of world-class chefs.

It is at last a truly cosmopolitan place. Not only is the shopping the best to be had anywhere in the world, but, glory be, London now hosts its best fashion houses. Now there’s a surprise for all of us. Perhaps that all began long ago in a non-descript place called Carnaby Street.

So there we have it, my second favourite city. One which, along with our hopefully-reviving economy, we can all celebrate.

We have fallen short on honour

As a country which abhors state sponsored killing and the grisly process of snuffing out a human life, I find it perplexing and distressing that the British Government will not lift a finger to save a British grandmother facing death by firing squad in Indonesia. I will not get into the details (she was a drugs mule) of why she finds herself in her present situation. But she acknowledges her foolishness and offered full co-operation to the authorities.

Lindsay Sandiford lost her appeal last month over the British Government's refusal to fund her legal challenge against a death sentence.

British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford lost her appeal last month over the British Government’s refusal to fund her legal challenge against a death sentence.

As for the men who put her up to it, they have received light sentences. Many aspects of the trial were deeply flawed so that any examination will show that a death sentence was totally uncalled for. An appeal funded by legal aid would almost certainly highlight this, but our own authorities will not grant this.

They are more than willing to provide legal aid to umpteen tycoons – millionaire Asil Nadir springs to mind, as does that property developer reputably worth £400m who is hiding his money from his ex wife. And, of course, there is unlimited funding at taxpayers’ expense for any number of foreign nationals who wish us harm and for their never ending appeals under the Human Rights Act for permission to stay amongst us.

Ours is a nation they despise, whose culture and laws they wish to overthrow. Yet they are happy to take advantage of its lifestyle and the benefits system which makes that possible. The reason why these expensive appeals by self-proclaimed Jihadists so often succeed is that we are unwilling to send them back to their homeland in case they are mistreated there. Yet here is the ultimate case of mistreatment – death by firing squad – and it is happening to a British born woman who has lived most of her life here.

There may well be millions living in our country who have no legal right to be here. Any one of them, before they could be deported, would be able to throw themselves on the mercy of our courts and run us up huge legal costs before we could send them home. Where, I ask myself, is the logic or consistency which allows us to say no to a British grandmother and yes to one of them?

All this reminds me of the cold-hearted, honourless attitude of the Gordon Brown government when it would not allow Gurkhas, who had frequently put their lives on the line for us, to settle in our country at the end of their service lives. It took the redoubtable Joanna Lumley to help that government change its mind.

But right now there is another ongoing scandal which this time concerns the Cameron government. It relates to interpreters in Afghanistan. Two hundred or so who have risked their lives working for us in that benighted country are to be abandoned as next year begins the drawdown of our presence in that country and thus our need for linguists. They are fearful of what will become of them and their families once we are no longer there to protect them. The answer seems a simple one: let them come back with us. But shamefully that is not the response of our authorities. The interpreters are being told they must remain and take their chances. How truly inhuman is that? When the presently contained Taliban presence in Afghanistan is augmented by floods more coming in from Pakistan, once we are gone these interpreters are dead men walking. The Jihadists will take a terrible revenge. They will not care a hoot that the whole Afghan operation was authorised by the UN. Anyone who assisted, as they see it, the foreign invaders, can expect their special brand of punishment. What is at issue here is not just the saving of lives of people who have risked all for us, but the very honour of our country. The idea that we can happily grant asylum to countless others who have no claim on us is beyond comprehension.

Present day Russia is very much a gangster society led by an authoritarian government claiming to be democratic. But in one important area it puts us to shame. That is where honour is concerned. My Lithuanian wife’s father was a colonel in the Russian military. When the thirteen countries which formed the Russian empire – which it chose to call the USSR – broke away and gained their independence the Russian state could quite easily have washed its hands of obligations to the nationals of those newly independent states who had served it for their pensions and other rights. But it did not. My wife’s father receives a full and generous pension from Moscow.

How did we handle a similar situation when our own legions and public servants came home from our far flung colonies? We abdicated the duty to pay their pensions. We turned to the new rulers of India, Burmah, Ghana, Malaysia and the rest and said to them: “It’s up to you, old boy. You must pay their pensions”. If later they reneged or found they couldn’t afford it or felt they had been blackmailed to get their independence and stopped payments then that was that. Our attitude was tough. “Your quarrel,” we said to the poor man who had sweated all his life under the tropical sun, “is with the new rulers”.

Honour is a noble thing and it grieves me to think that my country has been short on it in so many instances. I hope Cameron will do the right thing where those brave Afghan interpreters are concerned and that he will intervene, before it is too late, over that wretched grandmother.

Philpott represents all that is despicable about our species

With the approach of the weekend I fret about what topic I can try to interest the reader in next week. But it seems the answer is clear: the Philpott case. A bit like the immigration issue, if you mentioned it you were in immediate danger of being labelled a closet racist, but now we can have an open and honest discussion. So it was too with Welfare.

Did it ever occur to Philpott that fire is not so easily controlled as the hapless women who came into his orbit?

In that case you were a stony-hearted – boot on the neck – oppressor of the poor. In both cases the bleeding hearts hoped by such calumnies to shut down the discussion and for generations they succeeded. Now Philpott has breached the dyke in magnificent fashion and the second of these taboo subjects has fallen to the dictates of rational argument.

If Philpott has done nothing else positive in his whole miserable, outrageous life he has, at least, opened the floodgates for a full scale debate on the whole meaning of Welfare. Now, let us be clear from the beginning: all right minded people pity the poor and disadvantaged and are prepared to move heaven and earth to ease their plight. But just as vehemently we feel a mighty anger at those who pretend to be in that category.

Long ago (1988) the British Shoe Corporation closed on me after years of pursuit for the back rent and balance of a 14-year lease for a business whose premises they rented to me. I had sold it in Glasgow six years before. You see, in legal parlance, I was ‘The Leasee of Last Resort’. It is a practice now banned by Parliament. What had happened was that the man I had sold my health club to had got into business and matrimonial difficulties and had done a runner to Australia. Muggins, here, was left to pick up the pieces. The Shoe Corp was finally advised by its sharp lawyers in London that the best way to force my hand was to take out an order in bankruptcy. At that time I was coming to the end of my 21-year lease for my Plymouth city centre health club and was making preparations for a new line of business – the ski centre – and I knew that if they made me bankrupt that was never going to happen. I was forced, as a result, to liquidate all my assets and that included two houses.

As a now homeless person with three children I ended up in a housing association property, but I was enabled, with the help of investors, to continue the ski project and drive it forward to completion.

The reason I tell you all this is that I saw at close quarters the benefits system in action – or at least two significant parts of it. My neighbour on one side was on disability benefit. There was a brand new disability car on the driveway. You can imagine my shock when later I saw that same person’s photo in a local newspaper, having completed a half marathon. My neighbour on the other side used to get up at 5.30am for his six o’clock work start. He told me that out of about 60 housing association properties only three were paying the rent. He felt a deep rage at this. The rest were claiming either to be one-parent families, disabled or unemployed. There were a few pensioners. Daily we could see the so-called unemployed going off to their cash-in-hand jobs or the fellas of the so called one-parent families parking their cars down the road and sneaking in through the back door to spend the night. So let’s not pretend that there is not widespread abuse.

The burden, especially during the longest recession in 200 years, has become intolerable as well as unsupportable and its effects are deeply pernicious.

Next year is a special year for me: I will have been at work for 60 – yes, 60 – years. I did not celebrate my 70th birthday – particularly, as I felt that in today’s world, unless you are unlucky, 70 is no big deal. But the thought has recently occurred to me that next year is different: it represents my own little Diamond Jubilee. You see, I am old school; I am deeply proud of not being a burden to my country and blessed with health that allows me to continue contributing my penny’s worth to its well being. I get up in the morning and walk the mile to work and there I meet the public – to whom I must continue to be nice and disavow what some would say is a normal right to be a grumpy old man. I set to, repairing shoes, cutting keys, servicing watches, engraving trophies, making wooden house and other signs and framing pictures. None of these things could I do before the age of 55, so I think I may have disproved that old dictum that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.

When I was about to leave school at 15, the idea of not working was not on the radar. There weren’t benefits as we know them today. My foster parents took the view they had done their bit and it was up to me to do mine. Three years after starting I got hauled off to the Army to do my bit there for two years as a National Serviceman and I managed to get shot at by the IRA. Quite sobering it was. But the point of all this is about being useful to society if you can. I was 21 when I heard President Kennedy’s famous line in his inaugural speech when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Did Philpott ever think such thoughts? I think not. Nor, unfortunately, do multitudes of others. That is the trouble. It was right that William Beveridge, in his famous report, sought to abolish the evils of want, hunger, idleness, ignorance and disease. It was wrong that noble concept was hijacked by scroungers and the workshy. We – all of us – are culpable for the stupidity we displayed when we allowed it to happen. Naively we believed in peoples’ essential goodness and probity. Yet it has turned otherwise honest folk, who saw their neighbours getting away with it, into dishonest scroungers themselves. Now, perhaps, the party is coming to an end and we can begin the long climb back to our core values. We may, in the process, start to balance the national books.

As for Philpott himself, he represents all that is despicable in our species. He was a bombastic, narcissistic bully with a deeply cruel streak who even imagined he was fast becoming a celebrity, perhaps eventually a national treasure. He thought he could lead the media by the ears believing it to be something else he could control. He was also very stupid. Did it never occur to him that fire is not so easily controlled as the hapless women who came into his orbit? He may continue to try to play the big man as he has done all his life, particularly with women, but that won’t last five minutes under the rigours of the prison system. I shudder to think what might happen if his fellow inmates gain access to him. Prisoners are infamous for exacting their own kind of primitive justice, especially where crimes against children are concerned. A speedy visit to that same eternity to which his lunatic actions consigned his six innocent children might well end up being a much sought after escape.

Mid Staffs is a man-made scandal

I have not written about anything that causes me so much pain as this article does. This is because as a Briton, proud of what my country has achieved down the ages, I am ashamed of the shocking scandal unfolding in what was meant to be our pride and joy: the NHS. Nothing in my experience begins to compare with the sheer magnitude of it all; the needless deaths, through wanton neglect, of almost certainly thousands of people in our hospitals.

COMRADE: Fish rot from the head

SIR DAVID NICHOLSON: Fish rot from the head

Fish rot from the head and any man – and we speak of Sir David Nicholson – who believed that the totalitarian system that was once the USSR was a good thing should never have been put in charge of such an organisation as the NHS. Apparently his hero was the gruesome Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. It shocked me how readily and swiftly the PM and Heath Secretary sprang to his defence. Perhaps it was because Nicholson had a reputation, when ordered to do things, of carrying out those orders. While that may be so, the consequences, as whistleblowers made clear to Nicholson, was an unfolding tragedy of epic proportions. But orders are orders and Nicholson ploughed on, heedless of the human misery he was unleashing. In order to achieve his purpose and and keep to his ‘good’ name as a man who could be relied on to deliver, a climate of fear was created throughout the NHS. How very USSR-like.

I will not detail the horror stories which have emerged: you are all familiar with them. But instead of being reassured, looked after and returned to health, where possible, people died in their hundreds, indeed – across the NHS – in their thousands. A single hospital stands accused of up to 1,200 deaths.

We all remember the unconscionable time we often waited for routine operations and A&E. The last government decided to do something about it. Everything was done with the best of intentions, but as we all know, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. When it became apparent that their action plan was not working out, another well known maxim kicked in: the law of unintended consequences. At that point Nicholson and his Labour masters should have paused and taken stock. But they did not.

So what has become of us that we have failed in almost the most fundamental of all our duties, the care of our old? When our troops burst in on Belson concentration camp they found a level of horror – of man’s inhumanity to man – not known in the whole of human experience. We put the perpetrators on trial and hanged them. At their trial they pleaded that they were obeying orders. What they did not plead – though they might have done – was that they had been conditioned for years to see their victims not as human beings, but as the lowest of the low – a sub-species – not worthy of using up precious resources. I fear that when our old people – be they in care homes or hospitals – fall into frailty, incontinence or dementia, something of a similar attitude takes hold in disquieting numbers among those charged with looking after them. Yet in their case they do not even have the excuse of saying that their government had told them their charges were worthless. So, what is it that allows lethal, criminal neglect, which were it directed at a child or even a dog would send us into paroxysms of fury ending in stiff prison sentences but does not do so with our old and helpless? I truly do not understand it!

What is incredible is that the unfeeling apparatchik who presided over it all was not only not held to account, but promoted to the top job in the NHS. How very public sector-like. And this man – would you believe – is judged by himself (and Cameron) to be the best person to sort it all out even though he admitted to a Commons Select Committee that he had no idea what was going on in the wards. Well, it’s a funny kind of CEO – in whom 90 per cent of his own workforce have no faith – that hasn’t a clue what the troops are up to. And even funnier that such a level of incompetence should inspire the political leadership to think that in this broad land of 63 million there is none better.

The Francis Report into the failings of the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Trust wanted to name names, but using, as ever, our money – just like the BBC – the ‘fingered’ individuals engaged the sharpest, most expensive lawyers in the business to threaten Robert Francis with law suits. After three months of arguments and delay, he buckled. It all, thereafter, magically became the fault of ‘the system’. Nothing, said the chastened Francis, was to be gained by ‘scapegoating’. Sorry, Robert, but people did this thing and people must answer. Start with David Nicholson and move down to ward level. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the whole farrago involves multiple, pitiless deaths which on a head count makes the Harold Shipman outrage look like a trifling matter. And at least Shipman’s victims were despatched painlessly and their road to Calvary travelled with great expedition.

A chief characteristic that distinguishes our species from every other in the animal kingdom is our sense of dignity. From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to bed, we carefully nurture the image of how we wish the world to perceive us. Take that away and you have inflicted the cruelest of hurts. So being careless of people’s nakedness and forcing them into adult nappies because it is too much trouble to help them to the toilet is unforgivable; to leave them in soiled, cold, soaking sheets covered in their own dried excrement caked in overgrown nails which nurse graduates feel too grand to cut is beyond my powers of description; to force them to struggle to reach for water and food which is beyond reach is totally criminal.

Death is the single most difficult event that any of us will have to handle. To meet it in squalor, neglect and suffering over a protracted period with all dignity stripped away is impossible to equate with a civilised society. In my view we are all guilty, every last one of us – just as the entire German nation was guilty of the Holocaust. In both cases we allowed it to happen on our watch. We strut the world stage fixated on our favourite hobby horse, Human Rights, lecturing anyone unfortunate enough to cross our path on the virtues of compassion, yet we show nothing of it on too many of our wards. Shouldn’t Charity begin at home?

Those charged with looking after the fathers and mothers who fought two World Wars for us, and whose sacrifices in the years following brought us social security and prosperity, have a sacred duty to perform. They should remember that they were not always the sad, helpless individuals they see before them, but once vibrant men and women who held down jobs and brought up children. If it would help them to understand this, let a photo be affixed to the head of every bed to show their carers how they looked in their glory days and let a caption tell the story of who they were and what they did.

Are you a dog, Irish or black?

Two things caught my attention this week and led me to think that I must write about them. First, we have recently noticed that more females are being aborted in this country than males and, second, that Gays want their own Olympics. They are widely disparate subjects, but they have one thing in common: both groups, down the ages, have been victims of discrimination.

If you were going to be born human it has historically always been better for you to be born male. Even in the more enlightened, liberal societies of the West this is still the case – though clearly less so than in times past. We are working hard on the few remaining unaddressed areas of inequality. They tend to be now of the less obvious kind, being more of a subtle nature. But they are there.

That greatest pinnacle of inequality, the aristocracy, is on the threshold of yielding primogeniture – led by the monarch, who has let it be known that she has no objection to a female inheriting the throne, even where there are younger brothers. Why, indeed, should she when she herself is the lucky beneficiary of discrimination on account of the accident of her father having no sons? You might say she became monarch by default. However, history has amply demonstrated that female monarchs can do every bit as good a job as can males; witness Victoria, Elizabeth I and, indeed, the present incumbent.

So if we have learned to value females as much as males, how come we have more females currently being aborted than males? The answer, clearly, must lie with our immigrant population, large swathes of which have brought the malign baggage of boy favouritism with them. (Scans, of course, allow for early identification of gender.)

Burqa-clad Afghan women show identification cards as they wait to cast their votes at a school converted to a polling centre in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

It seems to me there is only one way to address this issue. We must discourage the ghetto mentality in our immigrant communities and insist on adopting mainstream values, as the Americans do. The burqa and niqab, for example, strike me as no more than prisons of dark drapes – and like a prison there is no escape. Their sentence is one of life. They must learn to live with it. There is no place in 21st century Britain for medieval mindsets which demean and devalue women, even to the extent of dictating what clothes they wear.

It is economics which dictate why many Muslim men think as they do; they believe that male children have greater earning power and are better able to look after them in their old age. When we have educated and seduced them into wishing for the delights of Western consumerism, which after all produces jobs, they will realise that the only way they will acquire the goodies is by putting their women out to work. And since we are well on the way to equal pay for both sexes, we must hope that economics and self-interest will play a large part in overcoming their medieval mindsets.

It is my belief that, notwithstanding these aberrations brought in from abroad, we live in a kindlier, fairer and more forgiving world in the West than we have ever done. Discrimination, bigotry, prejudice and violence in all their ugly forms are on the run – and rightly so. When I was a boy in the fifties, no one thought it odd, much less outrageous, for a landlord to put up a sign in his window saying ‘No Dogs, Irish or Blacks’. If a wife got beaten at home by her husband, the police would rarely intervene. It was, in the common parlance of the time, ‘a domestic’. Now all of these are criminal matters and rightly so. Who would argue otherwise?

As for landlords not welcoming Gays, no notice in the window would be thought necessary. The then generally accepted, disgusting nature of the relationship was considered to make their exclusion obvious. And besides, such debauched subjects were best not touched on and certainly not spoken of in print by putting a notice in the window; rather children seeing it would be their worried concern.

Then there was the huge discrimination against disabled people. That too is being addressed. The recent Paralympics has taught us much in this regard, and was a giant step towards goodness and equality. As a nation we can rightly take pride in what was achieved. It can fairly be said that we have set a benchmark for others to follow – a Gold Standard, if you like.

Yet one of the last great prejudices that we have to overcome is our attitude to mental illness. We still do not give it anything like the sympathy and attention it deserves, and millions – yes, millions – suffer as a result, usually in silence and quiet desperation.

However, in our laudable efforts to come to grips with all of these things and undo the wrongs of the past, we are in danger of creating absurdities. This call of Boris Johnson’s – backed by David Cameron, no less – for London to host the 2018 Gay Olympics seems to me a game too far. All it does is suggest that Gays are, indeed, different – which surely is not what they intend.

Positive discrimination in jobs and other areas is also something we need to watch carefully. If not, we may be in danger of creating a backlash from the mainstream population. I sometimes think that we have travelled so far in that direction that – with the right qualifications – your life chances in Britain today may be better if you are not Caucasian.

In formulating my thoughts for this article, it came to me that long ago I was myself a victim of a quite pernicious form of discrimination. I grew up in a school which was purpose built for illegitimate children: there were six hundred of us. Society had once been prepared to let such children die on its streets before one day it would come to their rescue. On his visits from the docks to Central London, a merchant sea captain called Thomas Coram would be distressed by the sight of abandoned and dead babies.  He decided to make it his life’s crowning achievement to do something about it, and seventeen years of incessant lobbying finally brought him in 1739 a Royal Charter to set up Britain’s first Children’s home for the ‘Abandoned & Destitute’ which he called the Foundling Hospital. It was Britain’s first charity.

But while we children had to be eternally grateful to men like him – and a hundred and thirty-five years later, to Dr. Bernardo – we in the Foundling Hospital had a particular cross to bear. We were the children born in sin – the ‘Untouchables’ of our particular culture. And so it remained until as late as the nineteen fifties, when a foundling girl was dismissed from her job because her boss found out about her origins and would not allow her staff to work with her. One of the consequences of this sad and cruel outlook was that all of us felt the need to hide the circumstances of our birth and upbringing and keep it as our own dark secret; it fostered a sense of inferiority and shame. In one sense we were on a par with the dogs and Irish in those ‘No Dogs or Irish’ signs. We were considered not welcome, even dirty.

Of course, as ever, hypocrisy reigned – in this case literally. The one who should have set an example – the king – could have as many bastard sons as he wished and all doors would be open to them. They would even be ennobled and likely as not receive a Dukedom. The Duke of Monmouth even made a bid for the crown itself before he was defeated in 1685 and executed by his uncle, James II. So I suppose in my own way, deep down, I must have been affected, perhaps even scarred by it all. Of course, unlike those with physical handicaps it was not there for all the world to see, but the emotional and mental damage must have been considerable – especially since we were allowed no contact with our mothers (we had been given different names as babies so that we could never search them out). Equally, the mother could never steal back and reclaim her child.

I have often wondered what a shrink would make of me, though I have endeavoured, despite my many failings, to be a good father and husband.  The fact is that we are all born in the same messy way, and king or not, we will all shed this mortal coil in the fullness of time. There is a great justice and equality here. What matters is the period between the two events. All efforts should be directed towards achieving equality here also; a level playing field for all.

Today, when almost half the children being born are illegitimate, looking down on them as second-class citizens is both impractical as well as nonsensical. Personally, I regret the numbers being born out of wedlock since evidence shows that children thrive best in a committed family environment. Just the same, we will not force the non-married mothers into an economic cul-de-sac, as once we did, where they cannot afford to provide for their children. Neither will we saddle those children with a cruel burden of undeserved shame. Mothers and fathers will even escape prison if it felt that their absence would seriously impact on their children.

We are a better society than once we were, of that I am convinced. We may not be frequent Christian church-goers anymore, but we have an infinitely stronger Christian conscience. And we do not hang people. We have ‘listened’, at last, to what that great American president, Abraham Lincoln, once said when he appealed to the “better angels of our nature”.

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