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Nov 10

2023

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Helen Whitten

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My first novel, No Lemons in Moscow, is published this month by Troubador. You can buy a copy here. It’s set between the years 1990-2003, partly in London and partly in Russia.  I wrote it in 2020 before Russia invaded Ukraine, and thought you might find my observations of the changes that occurred between my first visit to Russia in 1990 and my return in 2016 of interest, as they are still relevant.

I publish this article now partly because I want to sell my book (of course!) but also because WE MUST NOT FORGET UKRAINE in the midst of the Israeli-Gaza war. If we forget Ukraine, Europe could become a very different place and we must remain mindful of this, as well as seeking peace in the Middle East.

I returned to Russia in 2016, visiting Moscow and St Petersburg 26 years after my first visit in 1990.  At that time I was on a tour organised by Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review, to visit the Russian authors’ houses and discuss Russian literature, which I had loved since I was a teenager.   I was travelling alone, part of a group of some 20 people all with an interest in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, among others.  We met for the first time at Moscow Airport and were greeted by a country at the very depths of economic austerity.  There were no lemons or oranges in Leningrad (as it was then) or Moscow – hence the title of my novel No Lemons in Moscow – and there were lines of drab-looking people outside any food store, queuing to find a chicken, loaf of bread or a half-dozen eggs for their family.

The food we ate on that tour was disgusting – weak chicken stock with a few pieces of pasta or an egg, indeterminate meat or fish.  So our group spent the next ten days supplementing our diet with black market caviar and vodka.  These were sold on the street by young boys or by hotel waiters, who charged us $5 for any purchase, although we had to wrap our dollars in napkins as it was illegal for them to possess American dollars. 

During the day we stimulated our minds with Russian literature and at night we drank vodka into the early hours of the morning, talking about life.  I unashamedly weave some of these experiences into the novel but the protagonist Kate is definitely not me and the book is fiction not fact.

For the population of Russia at that time Gorbachev’s era was a difficult one and he was an unpopular leader due to the food shortages. So perspectives of leadership are interesting, as whilst the West saw him as a good influence and key to ending the Cold War, the Russian people were, quite literally, starving.  They were also conceptually unable to understand that they could, in a capitalist world, get loans and start their own businesses to work their way out of poverty.  Years of rule under Tsars and Communists had taken away their ability to perceive creative options.  The Cold War had seemingly ended, the Berlin Wall had come down the year before but the average resident of Moscow found life tough.

And what a difference 26 years made. In 2016 our visit started in Moscow where we oldies were very competently chaperoned by the 21 year old daughter of our friend.  She was on secondment to Moscow University, studying Russian.  She was impressively fluent and also able to gain the respect of waiters and to ensure that even the most scary-looking taxi drivers did her bidding.  The latter drove at 100 kpm along multi-laned city streets – like Lewis Hamilton on a suicide mission.  I just shut my eyes and sighed with relief whenever we got caught in the huge traffic jams we encountered both in Moscow and St Petersburg; although the drivers still constantly switched lanes at least we weren’t going quite so fast.

Russia in 2016 was flourishing in comparison to 1990.  There had been investment on infrastructure, the hotels and restaurants were buzzing, young and old were better dressed and there were French and Italian designer boutiques in the GUM department store and elsewhere.  With organic and health food cafés on almost every corner one could easily have been in L.A.  The museums, chapels and the Hermitage had been restored and there was a sense that the Russians were way better off than they had been before.

And so it was easier to understand how Russians seemed to perceive President Putin to be a good thing.  Contrary to 1990 where the West saw Gorbachev as an ally but many of the Russian people distrusted him; in 2016 the West viewed Putin with trepidation but the Russian people seemed (from our short glimpse) to be happy with what he had done for their country on the inside. Whether they were or not is always difficult to tell in a country under authoritarian rule.

With May 9th coming up on our 2016 visit we also witnessed the build-up of troops and tanks in preparation for what they coyly called the “theatrical celebrations” of the end of World War II.  Red Square was transformed with banners of hammer and sickle; the square outside the Hermitage filled with thousands of marching soldiers and the narrow road outside our hotel became blocked with tanks, missiles and warheads.  When I sent photos of these scenes to others and mentioned my concern, one response was “OH come on!  What’s menacing about a few nuclear missiles and nerve gas weapons in the hands of a psychotic? Don’t be pathetic…!” and another: “show me a stable democracy that still feels they have to parade military equipment to the rest of the world”.  Since the invasion of Ukraine, of course, Putin has threatened us further with these nuclear weapons.

But the old fears of how much people could express opinions or not remained in the air. We chatted to some young girls wanting to practice their English. They were aware that it was illegal for them to download English movies and therefore had to log in with an IP address registered in the Netherlands.  “Perhaps one day the authorities will find us” they giggled nervously.  And when discussing press freedom with our guide he looked, for the first time, uncomfortable and told us of how his mother berated him for talking too much. Raised in the Stalin era he described her generation as having “fear-in-the-blood”. And yet, he said, the young can’t really imagine what life was like in previous eras and history is buried, along with the records of Chernobyl. I believe this is even more true of Russia today.

Security was everywhere on my second visit – in the detail required for a Russian visitor’s visa, the x-ray machines as you exit airports, enter railway stations, museums and shopping malls.  This makes me consider now whether we are adequately protecting our own department stores and galleries from terrorism, especially after the Just Stop Oil protest at the National Gallery recently and the sad divisions we are seeing on the streets these days. 

In idle moments I have wondered whether Putin has been reading Machiavelli’s Prince, the effective ruler needing to be “a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves.”  Machiavelli’s rule that when seizing a principality or state “the usurper should be quick to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke” triggers images of Crimea and now Ukraine, although he has been more hampered there than he would like.  Putin uses propaganda to seek the approval of his populous, it not being wise for a leader to expose himself to hatred as this signifies an inevitable and premature death or end-of-rule.  The Prince has relevance also for the oligarchs and new leaders of businesses in Russia.  Machiavelli admired the self-made man who rose from humble backgrounds advising them to learn how to be sensitive to the dance of power between ruler, powerful elites and a general population.  Leadership is a balance between strategy and action for the benefit of a business or country but can require tough decisions   We now know that Putin does not shy from such toughness and the oligarchs tread a dangerous path if they stand up to him.

When I left Leningrad in 1990 I left with the impression of leaving an inefficient country.  Banks ran out of money, Post Offices had no stamps, restaurants had no food, wine or vodka, our coach driver lost his way between Tula and Orel because he had no map.  On our last day, as we sat on the runway waiting to take off, the BA pilot explained that we had been delayed because the Russian Air Traffic controller had removed his earphones and was looking the other way.  The pilot had tried waving to get clearance.  Eventually someone else in the tower alerted the controller, who allowed us to take off.  I remember thinking it a fitting farewell to a disorganised region.

The same was not true in 2016.  We took off on the dot and there were plenty of lemons in Moscow.  But, with Putin in the Kremlin, I was not sure I would sleep well at night. In 2023, with his invasion of Ukraine I know I was right to be fearful. Let’s not allow the tragedies occurring in the Middle East to take our focus off Ukraine’s plight. There are children being kidnapped there too, and if Putin succeeds there, who knows what he will do next in Europe.

My novel No Lemons in Moscow is available from your local bookshops, Amazon, Kindle and Troubador Publishing.https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/no-lemons-in-moscow
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I understand that ITV is the latest in a series of companies to demand that their staff notify them of any inter-company relationships.  How awkward and embarrassing is that? At what stage do you notify your manager or HR – “I fancy x in Sales”? or “y and I went for a drink last night”?  What does it all mean and why should a company tell its staff what relationships it considers appropriate or not?  It makes me think of Orwell and the thought police or, worse, the morality police.  Don’t we need to be careful of such policies being over-reaching of a member of staff’s freedoms?

All this in an era where Diversity is supposedly celebrated, with the concept that more diverse voices equal creativity and greater problem-solving capacity within departments and teams. Yet the reality seems to be that despite this supposed message there is more groupthink today than there ever was a decade ago. For anyone who expresses concern at aspects of gender critical ideas or critical race theory or certain political ideas, flirts a little, or dares to make a joke can be silenced, limited, even lose their jobs.  So they don’t really want you to be free, do they? They really to want you to conform, which is the opposite of what stimulates creative thinking.

And limiting your ability to fall in love is restricting indeed.  This trend began back in around 2005-6 when I had the following letter published in the People Management edition of 31.8.06 entitled ‘Let Love Blossom’, written in response to an article on the problems of office relationships in their edition of 10.8.06.

Dear Sirs,

The “Working Ardour” article made me wonder how realistic it is for companies to have policies that try to prevent office romances.  Love is where it falls – you can’t always choose a neat and tidy place; it seems to choose you.  With people working long hours, making relationships outside work can be difficult.  As a coach many people tell me that they are too tired at the end of the working day to have the energy to go looking for love.  With a falling birthrate and many more single people it seems to me that organisations should be supportive of romance for the health and wellbeing of the individuals concerned – and also our society.  

If a genuine professional or regulatory reason exists where an actual or perceived conflict of interest between the private and professional lives of a couple might occur, then there should be a mechanism to enable the couple to make a confidential disclosure of the relationship to a senior manager or compliance officer.

Where relationships are discouraged, dishonesty is bound to occur, and the chances are that the organisation risks losing or alienating two talented people.   An organisation can realistically expect that the couple concerned will act professionally and with discretion.  Beyond that I would say it is none of their business. Helen Whitten, Managing Director, Positiveworks Limited”

I would stand by what I wrote then. We are not talking here of sexual predators, stalking or bullies, who obviously should be stopped but where all too often there is wilful blindness, especially where a senior member of staff is concerned. We are talking about consenting adults, people coming to work, working hard and falling in love with someone who is likely to share some of their interests. Why should there be some kind of school register for these relationships? It seems to me to be thoroughly intrusive.

The birthrate is falling dramatically across Europe and the world.  If relationships, heterosexual or gay, are limited through authoritarian red tape hampering their natural course, there will be even fewer babies born or adopted.  Then AI will really need to take over!

So many successful relationships and marriages have started in the workplace. Who are HR to stop them?  Isn’t it time for a rethink on why this is necessary for the majority when it is likely that only a small minority might cause a problem?  Similarly, I would argue that it is time for a rethink on the whole diversity and creativity issue as removing freedoms will inevitably limit creativity and lead to groupthink. Time to stop these overbearing regulations and treat people as responsible adults able to express opinions and choose their own partners without nanny interfering.

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Oct 20

2023

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Helen Whitten

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There are some moments when you come to see a pattern in your life. I have just had one of these moments and I wonder if you have ever suddenly seen how one event has led to the next and brought you to where you are now? How there is a pattern to your life’s journey, if you take the time to stand back and look at it? How one seemingly random thing connects to another?

I have had a few moments like this in the past – my fascination with Russian literature and the fact that I have just written a novel set partly in post-Gorbachev Russia. How I was once a corporate wife laying tables and welcoming clients and guests for dinner one moment and then the next, when I was running Positiveworks, I was laying up the tables and welcoming delegates for corporate workshops. How the realm of ideas has always intrigued me and how my teenage friends would comment that I would burst into a café and bat on about a new idea or concept that I had just read about in some book. These are just small things but definite themes or threads in my life. I wonder what yours were?

And always there was an interest in how what I was reading or thinking about could help us live life well. So this week when I attended a course on the Italian Renaissance philosopher Ficino I suddenly saw how I had begun this journey back in my teens, reading, thinking, writing, then lost it a little when my sons were small and I was busy, but picked up on it again when I studied Renaissance philosophy and the History of Political Ideas at King’s London. Then studying Cognitive-Behavioural psychology with its Socratic dialogue, NLP, and Tony Buzan’s teachings on mind and body.

And of course philosophy is, in its many forms, about how to live well and wisely, to make sense of our lives as human beings.  And this was what I was endeavouring to do, in my small way, in coaching and training during those years in Positiveworks, and each of the books I wrote at that time were equally trying to help young, old, working and retired people to make the most of themselves and their lives.

The philosophy retreat at Waterperry House gave me time to reflect and to see how the dots connected. Here I met some wonderful and interesting people and we came together to study, meditate, contemplate. It was an inspiring couple of days and the retreat leader helped us reflect on the texts that illustrate how philosophy enables us to apply these words in a practical way in our lives, helping ourselves and others to live well and to make the most of this life we have been gifted.

The endless noise of negativity that we receive from the media and social media, plus visual images of violent and warring online games and apps, television series on the Yorkshire Ripper or Jimmy Savile, and the crime dramas that fill our screens with dead bodies, particularly of women, hardly help us to rise up to higher thoughts of how to make life good. Wouldn’t it be great if people used their creativity to give us something uplifting, something inspirational – after all, there is no shortage of amazing and miraculous events and stories that they could show us if the directors and writers chose to focus on people who have created some kind of breakthrough, or pushed through difficulty to reach success.

For what are young people seeing to help them understand that they have the choice to be drawn to the baser elements of life or focus less on themselves and how they look, with or without Botox or pec muscles, and focus more on what they could create for the greater good? For this will impact their happiness, without a doubt, and we can see from the rise in mental health issues in young people that they are not learning how to be resilient or how to screen out the negative and focus on what is positive or beautiful or wondrous. And we do have this choice. We do have control of where our minds go. We can learn the skills to do this and these help us make the difficult decisions we will inevitably have to make in life.

One of the delegates told me a story of how she was at a parking meter and as she put the money in a whole stream of money fell from the meter into her hand.  It was about £50 or more.  She could have kept it.  Noone would have known. But she knew. She knew it was wrong to keep it and made the effort to go to the parking office and give it back because if she had kept it, she would have experienced disharmony within. For we know when we do something wrong, when we lie or cheat, and we then have to live with ourselves.

I have made plenty of mistakes in my life, gone in wrong directions, and I am sure we have all done some things of which we are not proud. We know how it feels inside us. Hopefully we learn a little something from those times, for we are all fallible. But what came out for me as I studied the philosophical writings, was that realisation of each decision leading to the next, even if we don’t realise it at the time. It made me think how important it is to take the time out to consider where you are now and how you got there.  Whose voices have you listened to? A parent? A teacher? A priest? A friend? Who do you listen to now? What was happening when you made significant choices? What were your turning points, or the sliding doors moments when you could have gone one way or another, caught the train or missed it. What did your mistakes, failures and successes teach you and what decisions might you make now when you think back over them?

Now more than ever we need a world call for peace, for calm, for cooperation instead of division and war. It takes each one of us to influence these outcomes. We can either tap into the negatives, moans, divisions, offences and complaints or we can draw attention to what is beautiful in this world, what holds us together as human beings. The choice is ours.

When you look at how your life is unfolding do you know where the dots are leading? When you look at that progression and tap into the qualities you value within yourself where would you like it to take you next?

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Sep 26

2023

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Helen Whitten

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Revisiting the philosophers of Renaissance Italy, I am struck by the fact that wealthy, influential and powerful men such as Cosimo de Medici sat around with others to discuss the nature of love, or the nature of virtue.  How often do you think our own wealthy influentials have or take the time to consider these elevated but crucial concepts of life?  I suspect not often, and yet both love and virtue are essential ingredients of life and of leadership, whether you are leading a country, an organisation or a family.

It has made me aware of how transactional life has become – you do this, I get that, and this serves a purpose. Yet sometimes we need to take time out from that activity and consider the higher aspects of life, as otherwise we don’t necessarily have the compass with which to steer our decisions.

Did it all begin with the moment when Personnel became Human Resources and people became like widgets to be used, sometimes abused, and seen for their practical contribution? There is a lot of talk of creativity but often only in the context of what that can do for the business or organisation. There are wellbeing and mindfulness classes which are excellent interventions to help people stay balanced and yet I would argue that we also need to encourage and give senior staff, in particular, the time to go beyond focusing simply on the present and stretch them to think about the nature of love, the nature of truth, justice, wisdom or virtue. And I mean not solely in the focused context of their business, whatever that may be, but in general contemplation, for the good of their soul, if you like, because nurturing such qualities will have an inevitable impact on those around them and therefore ultimately on their organisation.

When I worked as a researcher on Alistair Horne’s biography of Harold Macmillan, I remember a comment of HM’s grandson saying he would like to be Prime Minister one day because that meant that he would be able to sit under a tree and read a book.  Do you wonder if any of our global leaders get time to read a book these days, with the inevitable cascade of emails and documents they have to go through? Or go to the theatre, a ballet, read a novel? Yet all these activities take people out of the day to day, into different situations, different characters, different cultures and perspectives and so broaden our thinking and understanding of life and the human condition.

I think we can see the lack of this type of activity in the way politicians leap to follow one policy one week only to flip to another the week after. It’s as if they don’t have that inner compass of values or allow themselves to express their own sense of what is right or wrong but instead follow the idiosyncrasies of social media or newspaper commentary.  They jump on some bandwagon rather than stop and consider what is wise action. It’s hardly surprising that society is rather lost on what standards people might aspire to when leaders sycophantically faun to celebrities like Russell Brand, or dance to misogynistic rap lyrics at Glastonbury, or are unable to articulate what a woman is.  Like a parent, a leader needs to be willing to be unpopular in order to stand for what they consider to be right – but our leaders today seem to have forgotten this.  Yet the wider population aren’t necessarily fooled by those who sway in the wind. Many know a centred and thoughtful person when they see one, I think, and aren’t impressed by lies, shiftiness, or arrogance.  We can be reminded of our higher selves, of the dignity of humankind and yes, the dignity of work. We have the ability to rise up rather than sink down but may need some space and encouragement to do so.

It is so easy to while away the hours on screen instead of sitting quietly doing nothing, or reading a book, or just enjoying some beautiful uplifting music. I know this well myself, so maybe on the strategy days that organisations or political parties take, they could allocate more time to doing nothing, to walking silently in nature, and then to sitting around discussing the higher aspects of being a human being – asking what life is all about, how we can make meaning out of work, how we can make the most of the time here on earth and leave a legacy that we can be proud of. In this fast-paced life, could we encourage our leaders to use their downtime to get off the screen, get out of their everyday practicalities of life, and rise above the baying crowd to reflect on these values and concepts?  After all, we desperately need to motivate people to apply their skills for the good of all but they will not do so if they feel they are following straw men or women.

If the influencers of Renaissance Italy could take time to think, could we not benefit from ensuring our leaders do the same and encourage them in this pursuit? And then follow their example and do it for ourselves? I believe that after a quiet moment of contemplation away from screens and noise, people might return to work and life refreshed and energised, with a greater sense of purpose and direction. Even a short time makes a difference.

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Sep 17

2023

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Helen Whitten

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I returned to my old church, St Peter’s in Limpsfield, Surrey, recently. It was the church where we would go in my childhood for Christmas Eve carols with my parents, and Christmas Day and Sunday matins with my mother; it’s where I got married aged just 21, where my son’s funeral took place and where he is buried. It was like coming home and the rector and various members of the congregation could not have been kinder, for not only was I visiting my son’s grave but I also came to pray for my sister, who is very ill.

And her illness makes me feel very small, for I am eight years younger than her and so she has always been a part in my life, the sophisticated older sister who in the 50s was going out with her first boyfriends when I was a giggling 8 year old, and who, due to my mother’s illness, took me to Gorringes’ to buy my school uniform and put me on the school train to Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire.

And as she is my big sister her being ill makes me feel small again, and rather lost, but going to church at St Peter’s, to the eucharist, was like being with family again. I met people I didn’t know but who had been to the same local schools, I visited my son’s grave and took a plant to put beside the gravestone. And I thought about the need to keep the Christian church alive.

There have been articles recently that report that we are no longer a Christian country and that makes me feel sad.  Being in a cathedral raises my spirit, literally; sitting and contemplating a beautiful stained-glass window in the local church calms my mind and takes it to other quieter places.  Does it totally matter whether people believe in the whole story – maybe. But does it matter that people believe in the values of the Christian faith in one way or another – absolutely.

I felt let down by the church during Covid. It could have been a time when vicars spoke some words of comfort, reminded us that it is our soul that resides within this fragile body of ours, and that many believe this soul to be immortal.  None of us will ever know, probably, nor definitively, but it is a comforting thought and would have been so when we were losing friends and family during the pandemic but no, there was near silence and the doors to these beautiful sacred buildings were locked.

I am re-reading the Italian Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino and about to go on a retreat focused on his work. I am no expert but I studied him when I read history at King’s College London as a mature student. I was bowled over by how inspiring his words were, how he believed we all have a sense of the divine within us and can spread that divinity into the world, that through the dignity of our behaviour we can reflect God’s love.  He wrote at a time when society was also impacted by greed and corruption and he strived to remind people that we can aspire to a spiritual life through philosophy and everyday practice as well as through religion.

I feel that spiritual voices have been rather quiet recently, especially now that schools tend to embrace all religions and walk on eggshells not to upset others. Yet there is so much that is echoed throughout the prayers of all religions that encourages people to be honest, live well and seek the highest good in themselves and those around them. I think we need to hear these messages more often.

Ficino seemed to suggest that the intellect strives constantly and throughout our lives to know things, and the body and will to enjoy things. The intellect will never be satisfied, for there is always more to discover or learn, but entering the stillness that is a sacred building can help our mind rest in the moment and be open to goodness and truth, for buildings take on the energy of the events that occur in them, I find.

I am fed up with the whole ‘broken world’ narrative that is played out now, and certainly there have been some terrible natural events recently, but there have been other times when the world has surely been at least if not more broken. And don’t we need to give people comfort and raise them up to believe that they have the powers to make change happen, that they are carved out of the same rock as Jesus or other Gods or wise prophets? That we can come together and aspire for inner peace and collaborative action? After all, we see the most phenomenal global cooperation in these disasters. Don’t let’s forget that.

But my visit to St Peter’s reminded me that I am a Christian, brought up in a Christian society, so just as a Muslim brought up in the Middle East or a Hindu brought up in India will find the words in their holy books restorative, so do I and all of us can receive comfort and love from being in a community where you feel at home, where the words of the hymns or songs or prayers are familiar.

So I am grateful that I went down to my old church last week and am grateful for the kind words of those around me who saw that I was sad and comforted me, as did the gospel readings. I shall return.

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Aug 07

2023

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Isn’t it about time we celebrated families? In recent weeks we have had marches through London and other cities for Pride, LGBT and more, and that is great but let’s not forget the families who are often silently getting on with life. Why don’t we celebrate them with a march too? Apparently, according to my Google diary, there is such a thing as Family Day in the UK on 26 September this year. I am no good at organising these things, especially having just had a knee replacement so marching is not exactly my thing at the moment, but perhaps we can all raise a toast in some way on 26 September?

After all, keeping a family together is tough. Just this week I was telling my granddaughter that one of the very worst moments in a parent’s life is clearing up a child’s sick in the middle of the night. The next morning her Dad, my son, told me that my 7 year old grandson had been sick seven times all over the house throughout that night. There we go, you have to drag yourself out of bed, tend the sick child, change them, settle them and then clear up the disgusting mess, the smell of which lingers in your nostrils for days!

Other countries celebrate family far more than we do – look at the Greeks and Italians, it’s a part of their culture and it’s part of the joy of visiting those places. Whilst it is a step forward to celebrate many different ways of life, let’s not forget the family in that process. It’s hard work to put your children’s needs before your own over and over again, pull yourself out of bed to feed or change a baby or toddler, do a school run, prepare the lunchbox, go to work, pick them up and go through the whole homework, bathtime, and testing games of getting a child to stay in bed and go to sleep when finally one may be able to relax.  But then there’s the adult relationship to keep going too.  I didn’t manage that myself, sadly, and it is demanding to maintain a loving parental adult relationship over the long stretch of years, and I am full of admiration and envy of those who have managed it.

The wider family is also key to the successful functioning of any community – grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins and more. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child and it is lovely when one becomes fond of the children of friends as well as enjoying a loving relationship with grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The new generations.

This is the glue of the stability of a country because one invests so much love, work, and money into keeping a family together and so it matters that there is a good school in the neighbourhood, doctors, reasonable facilities, playgrounds. It makes us demanding of decent services and that keeps local and hopefully national standards up.

Presidents Putin and Xi would love it if our society fell to pieces. How they would laugh and take advantage were European civilisation to crumble – and you can be sure that their bots are busy undermining everything that we have built up over the centuries as it serves their purpose to weaken us.

So will you raise a glass with me to your own family and the families of all those you know and love on 26 September? I think they deserve it!

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