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Philip Morris: why 'smoke-free' is the sensible way to go

Two weeks ago Forest hosted a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham.

Subject of the discussion was 'Should smoking be consigned to history?'.

Chaired by Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas (which has just held its annual Battle of Ideas at the Barbican), the panellists were me, investment analyst Rae Maile, Chris Snowdon, head of the Lifestyle Economics Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Mark MacGregor, head of corporate affairs at Philip Morris UK.

The video above features Mark's contribution to the discussion, unedited, including his response to one or two questions from the audience. It’s worth watching, I think, if you want to know more about the thinking that lies behind the company's current strategy.

Other opinions were available too and some of the most interesting points - because the views of tobacco analysts are rarely heard in public - came from Rae Maile.

To hear the full debate (audio only) click here. It’s a long listen (75 minutes) so here are a few soundbites:

Mark MacGregor, Philip Morris:

"It feels to me that technology has finally arrived in the tobacco sector ... The development of e-cigarettes and other innovative products that are coming online now, they feel as if they are a way of allowing smokers to have access to products that provide them with nicotine but without the harm.

"We believe we have a role to play in helping to convert smokers to one of our alternative products ... It doesn't mean that we're in favour of people being banned from smoking. If people want to smoke it's completely up to them, but it feels like, for our business at least, that's the sensible way to go."

Simon Clark, Forest:

"PMI have shown a huge amount of arrogance in the last twelve, 18 months with some of their statements. Putting a billion dollars into an organisation that's called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World [is] a real kick in the teeth for consumers, many of whom enjoy smoking and get a great deal of pleasure from smoking.

"People have been smoking since 5000BC. The manufactured cigarette came along in the late 19th century ... so I think it's quite wrong for Philip Morris to say everybody should give up smoking and switch to our new product ... If people want to switch, if people want to quit, that's fine. But there are millions of people who enjoy smoking and that must be respected."

Rae Maile, investment analyst:

"I am particularly concerned at the approach that Philip Morris has used in trying to open a debate with regulators, with the health lobby, about this desire to move rapidly to a smoke-free future because customers have been, for 40, 50 years, increasingly under the cosh of ever higher taxation, ever more vitriolic messages, from public health about how stupid they are to carry on smoking.

"They have loyally bought the products of these companies and now you've got the largest of them saying, 'Well, actually, we kind of agree and we don't think you should smoke either.' And I think that's wrong ... That disrespect shown to the customer is absolutely wrong in a fast moving consumer goods industry."

Chris Snowdon, IEA:

"If you've got something that's been consumed very happily by many people for thousands of years, the idea that it's going to disappear is quite implausible, and there is a very good reason why the cigarette has been fantastically popular for 100 years.

"It's an extremely efficient and pleasurable nicotine delivery device so I don't think it will be consigned to history in our lifetimes but, more importantly, I don't think it should be so long as there's anybody in the world who wants to smoke."

Frankly, a discussion like this would have been better suited to the Global Forum on Nicotine, the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum or even the E-Cigarette Summit.

Sadly the organisers of those and other nicotine-related conferences appear disinterested in having any debate or discussion that questions the current orthodoxy that smoking should be eradicated and consigned to history.

Therefore, much as I disagree strongly with PMI targeting a 'smoke free' world, fair play to the company for at least engaging with us when invited to do so. As Claire Fox noted in her closing comments:

"Particular credit to Mark and Philip Morris for actually participating because if you're going to take this bold move then I think you have to be accountable for it and I think he was and he really explained the case very well in terms of what the strategy is, even if I personally don't agree with it."

I'll second that.

PS. I'll post clips of the other speakers later in the week.


Time to find another nanny 

Delighted to report that the Golden Nanny Awards are returning.

The success of last year’s event in Dublin surprised even me. I thought it was a good idea but you need a bit of luck and what sealed the success of the evening was the presence of Senator Catherine Noone (above).

Unexpectedly, the deputy leader of the Seanad accepted our invitation to collect, in person, her award for being Ireland’s Nanny-in-Chief.

It was a close run thing, though. I didn’t know for sure that she could make it until she appeared after our 60 or so guests had sat down for dinner.

Truth is, she rather stole the show and our challenge this year is to find someone who can fill her charismatic boots.

There is no shortage of potential nominees (Ireland currently ranks third in the Nanny State Index) but finding someone who is prepared to enter into the spirit of the occasion is a different matter.

The 2018 awards will take place in Dublin on Tuesday November 20. Nominees will be announced on November 1.

Watch this space.


Friends disunited

I went to the theatre on Tuesday night. The Union Theatre in Southwark, south east London, to be exact.

Built under railway arches (you can hear and feel the vibrations from the trains passing overhead), it's a small, award-winning fringe theatre with around 100 seats that can be booked in advance but are otherwise unreserved.

Instead they are allocated on a first come first served basis with the audience admitted in groups of ten:

Once you have checked in with a member of our staff, you will be given a token, with a number from 1-6, and this number will be the group you’ll go into the theatre (10 number 1’s, 10 number 2’s etc).

Arrive early, as I did with my son Ruari, and you can eat and drink in the theatre cafe or sit outside in the slightly misleadingly named ‘beer garden’.

This month (until October 20) the Union Theatre is hosting 'People Like Us', a play about Brexit by Julie Burchill and Jane Robins. The play, which has attracted a fair bit of publicity, is described thus:

How far would you go to save your closest friendships from being washed away by the tide of history? This is the question the five members of a London book group - pompous Lothario Ralph, judgemental minx Stacey, self-righteous coquette Clemence, thirsty straight-shooter Frances and rosy-spectacled scapegoat Will - must ask themselves when the fight for the future of Europe becomes a domestic battleground of secrets and lies as the personal and the political, the sexual and the sectarian, clash and implode.

In the two years since the UK voted for sovereignty, endless Parliamentary horse-trading has all but eradicated the visceral excitement of Freedom Day. What remains is the violent sundering which has cleaved husband from wife, brother from sister, parent from child - and friend from friend. In this play about sex and Brexit, books and friendship, Julie Burchill and Jane Robins examine the true cost of daring to pop one’s own social bubble and ask the question - can we only ever really be friends with people like us?

The idea came from Robins, a former BBC journalist. She took it to Burchill and together they wrote a play that has united critics because the verdict from the metropolitan reviewers is virtually unanimous – 'People Like Us' is a turkey.

‘Excruciatingly bad, painfully partisan’ (The Stage)
‘Cantankerous Brexit riposte is sour rather than refreshing’ (Evening Standard)
‘Burchill’s clichéd Brexit drama is Friends for bores’ (The Times)
‘People Like Us could have been a play about friendship. Unfortunately, it’s a play about friends who keep yelling at each other about Brexit.’ (Guardian)

Even the Telegraph (‘Julie Burchill's Brexit play offers a close union with boredom’) struggled to find anything positive to say.

Thankfully I was unaware of all this so I approached the evening with an open mind. Having seen it my verdict is, it’s not great but nor is it the car crash suggested by those reviews.

It’s true that ‘People Like Us’ takes a while to warm up. Laughs are initially few and far between and I can’t remember Brexit being mentioned once in the first ten or 15 minutes.

Thereafter however there were some amusing moments and [spoiler alert] the fight that broke out towards the end was well executed and did make me laugh.

Unfortunately, the characters - with one exception - were generally unloveable. Even the pro-Brexit characters (and this is a pro-Brexit play) were shouty and unpleasant.

But perhaps that was deliberate. After all, intolerance breeds intolerance and it can’t be a surprise that those who are intolerant of the referendum result have provoked an equally angry reaction from some who voted to leave.

The friendship issue is something else. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that real friends don’t fall out over politics, not even Brexit.

To be honest the issue hasn’t really arisen for me because most of my friends (and friendly acquaintances) voted, like me, for Brexit.

Of those who voted to remain there are two distinct groups. I can discuss Brexit with the first without having an argument because we respect each other’s opinions even though we disagree.

The same can’t be said of the second group. The point is, each side knows that and so we have an unwritten agreement not to mention it, or not to rise to the bait if the subject does come up.

I’m perfectly comfortable with that and as far as I’m aware I haven’t lost a single friend to Brexit (not that I have many friends to lose!).

In fact, the only ‘friends’ I have lost weren’t friends at all. They were merely people I had met, liked, and then followed on Twitter before their obsessive tweets about Brexit proved a bit too much.

I still like them, I just don’t want to read their increasingly deranged thoughts on a subject on which we will never agree. If I ever see them in person however I will greet them with no less enthusiasm than before.

Anyway, thanks to a mutual friend, I was introduced to Jane Robins, co-writer of ‘People Like Us’, during the interval. The play, she told us, is a “work in progress”.

Would I recommend it? In all honesty, probably not. While it’s refreshing to see a ‘pro-Brexit’ play on stage, I did think that an opportunity for some really biting satire had been lost.

Then again, with a running time of two hours (including interval) it didn’t overstay its welcome and I never felt bored.

What I would recommend without hesitation is the Union Theatre. If you’re ever in the area do pop in, if only for a drink or a bite to eat.

Also available for private hire.

Update: Rod Liddle writes, ‘Critics hated Julie Burchill’s Brexit play. What does that say about them?’ (Spectator).


Greetings from Geneva

Greetings from Geneva.

Arrived here on Thursday to catch the closing days of the Eighth session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

My flight from Luton was delayed by fog but you’ll be pleased to know that the weather is lovely here. Warm, sunny, clear blue skies.

As for COP8, there’s very little to report or comment on - barely a rumour - which is par for the course.

As usual this biannual event is taking place in a shroud of secrecy - amazing, really, when you consider that taxpayers like you and me are paying for it.

The media has been excluded but what really interests me is the lack of dissent from journalists and broadcasters. No-one seems to care.

I suspect it’s partly because, in Geneva at least, conferences like this are ten-a-penny and the boredom factor must be pretty high.

Barred from the main event, the IEA’s Chris Snowdon and I nevertheless wandered up to the Geneva International Conference Centre where the conference is taking place, took a few pictures (as you do), and then watched as one delegate shuffled out and lit a cigarette.

Introducing myself, I gave him my card and asked him how the conference was going and where he came from. Speaking with what sounded like a German accent, he smiled, puffed on his cigarette and replied enigmatically, “I come from many countries.”

He was on the budget committee, apparently, but that’s all he would say.

We then visited the ‘science booth’ (above) set up by Philip Morris International at a chic boutique hotel to promote the company’s alternative nicotine products.

Some devices are not yet on the market. There’s a new generation iQOS, for example, that is so much like a cigarette that you actually ignite the heating element with a proper match.

In my view the more it’s possible to replicate the act and taste of smoking tobacco the greater the chance of persuading a larger numbers of smokers to switch.

The downside is that tobacco control campaigners are so hostile to cigarettes and tobacco generally that any product that more closely resembles a cigarette is likely to face severe opposition and/or restrictions.

If PMI was hoping that delegates from COP8 would pop by to take a look I think they’ll be disappointed, even though some delegates are believed to be staying in the same hotel.

Anyway we haven’t let the lack of information coming out of COP8 spoil the party. Last night we had a very enjoyable dinner with some local contacts that involved cooking our own beef at the table. The practise has a name but I can’t remember what it is.

Today I’ve been catching up with what little news there is from COP8, writing a couple of blog posts, and enjoying the sunshine. (Did I mention the lovely weather?)

Tonight Chris Snowdon has arranged a little soirée at our hotel. It will be attended by, among others, the handful of pro-vaping campaigners who are in Geneva to protest against the WHO’s position on e-cigarettes which falls short of prohibition but doesn’t discourage countries that want to ban the devices.

It will be interesting to see how many people turn up. The only ‘protest’ I’ve seen so far was pretty low key but I’m told this is due to local regulations that make it difficult to demonstrate.

I’m hoping the legendary Aaron Biebert will join us. If that happens it will make the entire trip worthwhile.

Update: Saturday morning and I’m sitting outside our hotel, on a terrace, drinking coffee, waiting to catch a mid afternoon flight home.

I did meet Aaron Biebert and he is very charming, a really nice guy.

After Chris Snowdon’s event, attended by about 20 people, mostly vapers, we went in search of somewhere to eat and I found myself playing pool and ordering pizza in the Elvis Billiards lounge bar.

The tweet below is dripping with sarcasm, obviously.

More seriously, thanks to Chris for inviting me to join him. Excluded from COP8, our two days in Geneva have been far more enjoyable than I anticipated.

See also: The World Health Organisation’s week (Chris Snowdon)


Forest on the fringe

Earlier this week I was in Birmingham for the Conservative party conference.

This year Forest chose to forego our traditional drinks party in favour of two back-to-back fringe events on Tuesday afternoon.

We did this for two reasons. First, cost. Our legendary (!) hospitality was getting too expensive. The last time we were in Birmingham two years ago 500 guests turned up. That doesn’t come cheap.

Second, it’s hard to communicate a serious message when it’s late and people have been drinking. Even with a high profile speaker most guests are simply not listening.

The sight, last year, of some guests (who shall remain nameless) barely able to find their way back to their hotel rooms - let alone remember why they were there or what was said - suggested it might be time to try something different.

This time therefore we decided to host a panel discussion (‘Should smoking be consigned to history’) followed by a reprise of the balloon debate we hosted at the IEA in February last year (‘The most pleasurable nicotine delivery device in the world’).

We were outside the secure zone at Austin Court, a small conference facility a few minutes’ walk from the International Conference Centre.

We first used Austin Court ten years ago when we joined forces with The Freedom Association to launch the Freedom Zone, a mini two-day event that ran alongside the official conference.

Hard to believe that was an entire decade ago.

Forest’s contribution to the Freedom Zone programme included a chat show style event in the main auditorium presented by Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas.

This year she chaired the discussion on the future of smoking.

Panellists were me, the IEA’s Chris Snowdon, Rae Maile (a tobacco industry analyst) and Mark MacGregor of Philip Morris UK which wants England to be ‘smoke free’ by 2030.

I thought it was a pretty good discussion, far livelier than many other better-attended events that took place on the fringe.

The balloon debate was also entertaining with some excellent and amusing contributions from our five speakers.

James Price of the TaxPayers’ Alliance advocated the cigar, the IEA’s Madeline Grant spoke about e-cigarettes, while parliamentary researcher Mark Oates made the case for snus.

Former MSP Brian Monteith was an eloquent proponent of the pipe but it was Claire Fox who won the contest with a spirited defence of the cigarette.

(Our previous balloon debate on the subject was also won by the speaker advocating the cigarette. Campaigners for new nicotine products, take note!)

Would I host such events on the Conservative fringe again? I’m not sure.

Despite spending a fair bit on promotion we struggled to entice delegates to join us outside conference zone.

Even on the fringe smoking is a fringe interest. Vaping has the advantage of being something ‘new’ and as for cannabis ...

That said, it’s important (I think) to have some sort of presence at party conference, especially the party in government.

The exact nature of that presence is open for debate but I expect we’ll be back in 2019. Probably.

Below: Former MSP Brian Monteith


Stoptober’s ‘growing success’ explained 

Well, that was odd.

No sooner had I submitted a Freedom of Information request on Friday concerning the whereabouts of the Stoptober 2017 evaluation than said report was posted on the government website.

It probably wasn't in response to my email, which was sent at 11:19 in the morning, but it was a hell of a coincidence that the evaluation should be published on the same day.

That said, the 2016 evaluation was only published on 26 October 2017 (twelve months after the campaign ended) after an FOI and follow-up emails from me, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

More important, what does the evaluation tell us about Stoptober?

First, it explains why PHE is spinning Stoptober as a “growing success”. Compared to 2016, last year’s campaign was indeed an improvement if you accept the key performance indicators.

According to the 2017 evaluation there were several reasons for this but the principal one was money:

In 2016, competing priorities resulted in a significant media budget reduction (from £3.1 million in 2015 to £390,000 in 2016) for Stoptober. This in turn drove a radical rethink in media strategy and a digital only approach was taken in contrast to the usual multi-channel approach in previous years.

As expected, the budget decrease resulted in reduced awareness of Stoptober (there was a reduction in campaign recognition from 71% in 2015 to 48% in 2016). Additionally, and as a likely consequence of the digital only approach, Stoptober 2016 participants were slightly more upmarket (they were more likely to be socio-economic group ABC1 versus C2DE) and younger than in 2015.

As a result of the above, the 2017 Stoptober budget was increased. The total campaign budget was increased to £2.1 million, with the media budget increasing to £1.2 million. Traditional media, including TV and radio, were added back into the mix.

So with the media budget increased by over 300% in 2017 (compared to 2016), what happened? Well, according to PHE:

The Stoptober 2017 campaign performed well; in line with the increased spend. The campaign met or exceeded all of the key campaign targets for brand awareness, quit attempts and sustained quit attempts. The campaign also managed to reverse the trends in 2016 by rebalancing the demographic profile and re-engaging lapsed Stoptober participants.

Based on a tracking survey of 700 current and recent ex-smokers aged 16-74 in England, the 2017 evaluation states that:

  • quit attempts met the target of 16% of smokers and recent ex-smokers reporting a quit attempt as a result of Stoptober
  • sustained quit attempts (% smokers and recent ex-smokers reporting still not smoking after one month) increased from 6% in 2016 to 8% in 2017.

That, then, explains the "growing success" of Stoptober. Take the worst year ever (2016), increase the budget by 300%, reverse the trends set the previous year, and job's a good 'un.

But that's not all. According to PHE there's another, equally important, indicator of success - brand recognition and campaign awareness:

Reflecting the increased spend and reintroduction of traditional media into the strategy, Stoptober brand recognition was 76%, meeting the target of 75% and improving on the 2016 result of 67%. This brought brand awareness back to similar levels to 2015, where awareness reached 80%.

Campaign awareness also improved compared to 2016. 6 in 10 smokers and recent ex-smokers (58%) recognised at least one element of Stoptober 2017 campaign activity, up from 5 in 10 (48%) in 2016.

That, I think, gets to the heart of Stoptober. It's as much about brand recognition and campaign awareness as it is about quit smoking attempts.

In other words it's a marketing exercise and the main beneficiaries are not smokers who want to quit but the PR and advertising agencies who pick up the media spend, up to £1.2 million in 2017.

One thing that should perhaps concern PHE is something I observed on Twitter yesterday. With the arrival of yet another public health campaign, SoberOctober, some people seem to be confusing Stoptober for an alcohol-focussed initiative.

How's that for campaign awareness?!


Smoke and mirrors 

Stoptober, the 28-day quit smoking challenge, starts on Monday.

According to the Daily Mail:

Since launching in 2012, Stoptober has led to more than 1.5 million quit attempts in the UK.

In addition, a 2017 report by the University College of London has showed that quitting success rates in the UK are the highest they’ve been in at least a decade, up to 19.8 per cent for the first six months of 2017 and considerably higher than the ten-year average of 15.7 per cent.

The rise in quitting coincides with the growing success of the Stoptober public health campaign in the UK.

Growing success? That may be what Public Health England want us to believe but where is the evidence to support this claim?

In recent years I have written at length about Stoptober, noting the way Public Health England has moved the goalposts in order to maintain the illusion that their taxpayer-funded efforts have not been in vain.

For example, PHE used to invite smokers to register to take part in the annual ‘stop smoking challenge’.

But that was dropped when it was revealed that fewer people had joined in 2015 than in 2014. In fact, numbers fell by a whopping 15 per cent.

Curious to know how the 2016 campaign had been judged, I spent the best part of twelve months trying to get some information out of PHE.

Eventually, in October 2017, a full year after the event, PHE published the most rudimentary report (four pages), prompting me to write:

What does the evaluation, which I first enquired about twelve months ago, tell us about Stoptober 2016? Very little, as it happens, apart from one startling admission:

‘Our modelling estimates that total incremental campaign driven quit attempts were 124,500 versus 385,000 in the previous year [2015] ...’

In other words, the estimated number of smokers driven to attempt to quit as a result of Stoptober 2016 was a third of the number in 2015. And there is of course no evidence that they succeeded in quitting.

However, even the estimated figure is odd because I wasn't aware of any 'modelling' for Stoptober 2015. What we were told – by Public Health England in a press release issued on October 30, 2015 – is that 'over 215,000 smokers signed up to this year’s Stoptober'.

No mention there of 385,000 'campaign driven quit attempts' in 2015 so why include the figure in the 2016 evaluation?

More notable perhaps was the fact that in the press release that followed the conclusion of Stoptober 2015 Public Health England chose to ignore the fact that the number of smokers who signed up that year was 15 per cent lower than in 2014.

Seriously, how do those figures support the claim that Stoptober has enjoyed “growing success”?

It’s true that smoking rates have fallen since the launch of Stoptober in 2012 but that period has also coincided with the rise of e-cigarettes which were not advocated by Stoptober until last year.

It’s a bit rich therefore for PHE to claim credit for the “rise in quitting”.

Needless to say, as Stoptober 2018 begins, there is still no evaluation report for last year’s campaign [see Update below]. Nor have I read any mention of the budget that has been allocated to the new campaign.

Keen for some information, I submitted a Freedom of Information request yesterday that read:

Please provide the following:

1. A full evaluation of the outcome of Stoptober 2017.

2. The full and final costs (including media costs) for Stoptober 2017.

3. The total sum, including expenses, that was paid to ‘celebrity quitters’ including actress Laila Morse and Coronation Street star Kym Marsh for their work promoting Stoptober 2017. (Please specify the names of any other ‘celebrity quitters’ used in the 2017 campaign.)

4. The projected costs for Stoptober 2018 including the projected media spend.

5. The cost of employing TV presenter Jeremy Kyle to promote Stoptober 2018.

6. The projected date for the publication of a full evaluation of Stoptober 2018.

If and when I get a response I’ll let you know.

Update: Well, this is curious.

I submitted my FOI request at 11:19 yesterday morning (Friday). I received no acknowledgement or confirmation of receipt.

Instead I have just discovered that the 2017 evaluation report was uploaded to the PHE website ... yesterday (although it’s not clear at what time).

Perhaps I should have checked before posting but that’s one hell of a coincidence, don’t you think?

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but I will. Meanwhile you can find it here.


You have to like Limerick: guest post by John Mallon

Above: Forest’s John Mallon at Ocean FM in Sligo. John is currently touring Ireland, spreading the message that the high rates of excise duty on tobacco are “punitive” and “immoral”. He writes:

Some observations on the tour so far.

Last week in Kilkenny my eyes were drawn to a notice on the hotel entrance door. In big bold print it instructed, 'No smoking and no vaping either'. It was all 'strictly this' and 'absolutely forbidden that'. Tongue in cheek at check-in I alluded to the sign and asked if there was any particular way they wanted me to sit on their chairs.

They have no sense of humour in that part of the country, as I discovered on check-out. I was asked if I had enjoyed my stay with them. Truthfully I said I had but I objected strongly to their condescending attitude to smokers and vapers.

The receptionist told me it was the law and I countered that vaping was not against any law of the State. "Vaping," she spat. "Sure, that's even deadlier than smoking." So, a word of advice to all readers. If you should find yourself anywhere near a certain hotel in Kilkenny, don't dare vape or smoke, particularly during the shooting season.

In contrast, in Limerick I had finished my full Irish breakfast but wanted to leave my coffee briefly and go outside with my e-cig before returning for a second cup. Not only did the waitress tell me it was fine but she led me to a small garden adjacent to the breakfast room and even went back inside and brought me my coffee. When she saw the e-cig she added, "You should be allowed to have that inside." You have to like Limerick.

At the hotel in Tipperary they had a covered garden style area off the main bar and before I turned in I saw several people scattered around four tables. They smoked and drank unselfconsciously as they chatted and there was a glass ashtray on each table. This morning at 6.45 I noticed the area had been cleaned and swept and the ashtrays emptied, washed and placed back on the tables. Most of the time elsewhere they seem to like to let the smoking area look dirty and unkempt so full marks to the Clonmel Park Hotel.

I spent my first night of the tour in a room over a pub in a small village. They had six rooms for hire and I detected the lovely scent of freshly smoked cigarettes while upstairs. In the bar below four patrons were vaping, I noticed, which allowed me to sport my new red e-cig after dinner. The guest house clientele and the pub customers were all working men in overalls and my guess is that only starting a fist fight would really be frowned upon there. Smoking and vaping would be way down their list of no-no's.

I've done six of these tours to date but this one has been entirely different. I am well used to being confronted and baited by angry presenters as they attack me for defending smoker's rights. The ad hominem goading has always been an unpleasant feature of past tours, as has the listeners' complaints that I am on-air in the first place.

For the first time ever I am being welcomed into each and every studio like some sort of prized celebrity. I have been treated with curtesy and respect and encouraged to have my say. The conversations were cordial throughout and I was not the butt of any personal attacks.

I can offer no reason for this whatsoever. I haven't changed one iota and if anything I am tending to be more grumpy as the years go by. But I will say, it is positively spooky/friendly out there this year!

Guest post by John Mallon

See also: Travel story - on the road with John Mallon