Totally Failing London

It was a great strap line, TfL (Transport for London) have been failing Taxi drivers and the public for years. Now was the chance to highlight this and get these issues out there for wider debate. Totally Failing London, geddit? Yet 99% of the news coverage, and blimey there was a lot, focused on Taxis v Uber. Telling the world (and us) that we are anti Uber, anti technology, anti competition and only striking/protesting to save our greedy backsides. Even my fleeting appearance on BBC News was condensed down to a soundbite about the public needing to have trust in the quality of any driver they hail on the street. Rory Cellen-Jones is a lovely man but clearly was only interested in the Uber angle of the demo. In a response mirrored many times on Twitter and the news, Rory’s response when I told him the demo wasn’t about Uber was “But it must be about Uber! If they hadn’t come along, you wouldn’t be having the demo.”. Well, good people, it wasn’t about Uber and I’m going to explain why. Perhaps then, the likes of Jimmy Wales will stop patting me on the head and patronising me. Firstly though I will concede that as a trade we failed to get our message across. There are myriad reasons for this, trade bodies giving out different messages (I was handed a UNITE flyer yesterday that only talked about Uber), trade bodies not having press releases to prime the news organisations etc, etc. But the real problem was that TfL managed to focus the story on Uber, not themselves, and a media apparently obsessed with Uber was happy to pick up that line and run with it. And, oh yeah, Uber playing a blinder yesterday morning by announcing the launch of UberTaxi.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter, what is it that has driven “greedy cabbies” to turn their lights off and start protesting? Here are some of the issues, many that affect the public directly, others that really just affect us as drivers.

  • Safety – the level of sexual assault and rape in illegal mini cabs is still worryingly high. TfL have failed to put in place a system that adequately protects the public. Many of these shocking cases end up showing that drivers are working with false driving licences and other documentation. TfL appear to rely on the mini cab Operators to check documentation and it is clear that they are failing to to so. As many judges have said in recent years, women just cannot be sure who is behind the wheel of the mini cab they are getting into. Taxi drivers (John Worboys aside) have an exemplary record with safety. Ask yourself, if you were inclined to prey on women would you take years to study the Knowledge or would you buy a SatNav and a mini cab licence and be working in a matter of days?
  • Touting – many people end up in a mini cab after being touted when leaving nightclubs or other venues around the city. This is illegal. Mini cab drivers (or their mate with a clipboard inside or outside a venue) are not allowed to approach you to offer their services, if they do and you get in their cab your journey will not be covered by insurance. There are many venues in London, Oxo Tower is one I visit regularly, where customers are approached as they leave the building and never even see a Taxi as they are ushered into a waiting Mercedes. At these venues you will often see many mini cabs waiting for fares, this is also illegal as mini cabs are not allowed to be “ready for immediate hire”. These rules all go back to the safety issue as the rules are designed to keep passengers safe. It’s just incredibly rare to see these rules enforced in the flesh. Oxo Tower is less than half a mile from TfL’s London Taxi & Private Hire department.
  • Rank space – ongoing problems with gaining new ranks & retaining existing rank space was highlighted in recent months with the farcical situation at The Shard. No provision was made for a taxi rank to be placed at this busy location. After drivers started working unofficially from St Thomas’s St an official rank was finally installed, but about 500 yards down the road away from the entrance. As tension rose between drivers and security staff from The Shard it culminated in the police being called on a Friday night to stop taxis entering St Thomas’s St. A “flash” demo ensued with a more formal demo following a week or so later. Eventually a rank was placed outside the venue and The Shard proves to be an excellent source of work with a clear demand for our services. I tell you this story in full to try and highlight the ridiculousness of drivers having to have a demo just to get a rank placed in a sensible place that serves a clear need.
  • Licence delays – renewal and issuing of new licences became a real issue last year as many drivers were left without a current licence and were therefore unable to work. Quite what went wrong is unclear with TfL blaming the Home Office over delays with CRB checks and the Home Office blaming TFL. Previously, any delay in renewing licences meant that TfL would issue a temporary licence so drivers could continue to work. This policy has now changed and drivers are left with a potentially huge hole in their earnings. It seems that these issues aren’t completely fixed yet as I was talking to a new driver last week at Euston and he informed me that he had to wait 8 weeks after passing his final knowledge exam to get his licence. He’d left his job to try and complete the final part of the knowledge as quickly as possible and was then left in the lurch for 8 weeks!

There are other issues but I won’t bore you with them here, you’ll have to trust me when I say what I’ve highlighted here is just part of the problem. The London Assembly is even due to investigate TfL’s London Taxi & Private Hire department due to the problems that exist there.

I can’t let this post finish without at least trying to also correct a few of the misconceptions about what the issue with Uber actually is. When you read it, you may scratch your head and think what is all the fuss about. And you’d be right, and it helps to explain why yesterday ABSOLUTELY WAS NOT ABOUT UBER, because in the grand scheme of things Uber are possibly the least of our worries. The day to day inefficiency and incompetence from TfL has a far bigger impact on our working lives.

Let me just explain one little bit of Taxi/PH law first; as a Taxi driver (because of the extra training that allows me to accept instant hails) I am allowed to take bookings direct, unlike a PH driver who must accept a booking from a PH Operator like Addison Lee. This is why what Hailo do (connect me to a punter direct) is within the law and what Uber do isn’t. As previously stated, PH cars are not allowed to make themselves “available for immediate hire” and again, this is what Uber are doing and therefore breaking the law. Then there is the issue of their “virtual meter”. The law states that a PH vehicle is not allowed to be equipped with a meter. Uber, with TfL’s blessing, argue that a smartphone isn’t a meter. I think most right minded people would think that if it does the same thing as a meter, then it most probably is a meter. And an important point here is that Taxis are made to have meters fitted to protect the public from being ripped off. Yes, yes I know there are plenty out there that see our prices as a rip off anyway. But the important point here is that we have a REGULATED meter with prices that are set by TfL. Uber’s meter is controlled by, er, Uber so that they can change the rates at any time and hit you with that great scam of Surge Pricing. When they can’t keep up with demand, you the punter, who Uber claim to be fighting for against the evil taxis, are going to pay through the nose for their service.There are also issues around Uber not asking for destinations (required by law) and Uber not having an operating center in the UK, but in Holland. This final point seems to be the only one that TfL are admitting is a problem and that if they’d known about it before may not have issued their operator licence! I assume that at some point these issues will be addressed, possibly through court action, and Uber will carry on spending their huge reserves of cash trying to take over the market in London. As it happens, after that clever move yesterday, Uber may even become quite popular with Taxi drivers. Half the cost of Hailo (that’s the cost to drivers), meter on at arrival rather than 5 mins waiting time, what’s not to like? If you ignore their investors telling you that they are going to destroy your business and the rampant neo feudalism that is running though the tech industry. Perhaps we’ll leave the neo feudalism debate for another day though, eh?

But I still think there is room for us all, that despite the owners of Hailo and Richard Branson telling me their Apps threaten my livelihood, the taxi trade will be around for a long time yet. There is a false premise in most of the arguments that surround this debate, that technology will revolutionise the Taxi business to such an extent that I will be cast out into the wilderness begging Ron from Hailo to let me drive one of his executive cars. Well I think that’s tosh. Technology can help us, of that I have no doubt, but we still have a service that at it’s most basic works well and efficiently. Punter needs taxi, punter sticks hand in the air and hails one, or walks to a rank and gets one. And what Uber and Hailo really want is to take a big cut of the multi billion pound taxi market. Do they have drivers interests at heart? Definitely not. Do they even have customers interests at heart? Almost certainly not. What they really want is to re sell my work to me for a fee. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Ok, so I vented my spleen a bit about Apps, doesn’t change the fundamental issue here, It isn’t them that threaten the Taxi trade, its TfL and Boris and the politicians that do not seem to care about what is going on, day in, day out on the streets of London. They are, to coin a phrase, Totally Failing London.

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R.I.P. @Tweetalondoncab

Back in the mists of time (June 2009) before Twitter was mainstream and Taxi booking apps were EVERYWHERE, myself and Karl James sat in the back of his cab and came up with the idea of @Tweetalondoncab. (longer back story here) The intervening 5 years have been at different times exciting, difficult, happy, sad, weird, painful, and different. Often at the same time. But what emerged out of all that wasn’t anything that we envisaged at the start. The bookings were always a bit of a pain in the arse to deal with and despite multiple attempts to work with outside agencies, (hi Hailo how are you doing?) we realised that what we’d done best was create a community of like minded drivers. Bookings took a back seat and we concentrated on our traffic & work information service @Cabup, while other drivers did what they do best and created TLC Golf Society. There is also a TLC Cycling Society and rumours of a Wine Club. The @Cabup service has over 400 drivers sharing information and the golf society has monthly events that attract over 50 drivers (we can let you know where they are playing so you can avoid those courses).

Despite the somewhat bumpy journey, I am incredibly proud of what TLC as a whole has achieved and have made countless friends along the way, some of who aren’t even Cabbies! None of this would have been possible without the hard work of a lot of people so I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you to them all. I’d list them all here, but I’d forget someone important and that would be bad.

With Taxi apps everywhere spending millions and “disrupting” the Taxi Trade (I’ll leave my thoughts on all that for another day) @Tweetalondoncab seems almost quaint. We haven’t really taken any bookings for a while and those that come through tended to be through other, non twitter sources. So, with a feeling of both relief and regret, we have decided to close down @Tweetalondoncab as a booking service. From today we will not take any more bookings. But we aren’t going away completely, the twitter account has been renamed @blackcab and we want to put a bit of life back into that account. We have lined up a group of drivers who will take turns to “curate” the account allowing them to show you how they see this great city of ours. The cabby community is as diverse as most and we hope that we can show you that through the different voices that will emerge from this account. Bear with us for a bit while we find our feet and feel our way but we really hope to make the @blackcab account a fun and interesting source of Cab-centric information. Please feel free to become part of the conversation.

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Point 2 Point

Nothing in my near 46 years has quite filled me with the dread and fear that Knowledge of London (KoL)  appearances did. For those who don’t know how these exams work, they are as simple as they are terrifying, In my time you went to the PCO office on Penton Street, housed in a post war building of monumental ugliness, dressed in your smartest suit and sat in the waiting room for your name to be called. The waiting room had a map of London on one wall that particularly nervous (or lazy) knowledge students would stare at in the hope they would absorb some extra nuggets of information. Your examiner would call your name, sometimes from down the corridor so you wouldn’t even see them, and you would follow them and enter their office. They would have a seat in front of the window with all their maps and knowledge information safely out of view on an angled draughtsman’s type desk. They would then proceed to ask you a series of ‘point to point’ questions and you would then verbally tell them the route you would take, road by road, turn by turn. So, you might be asked to take the examiner from The Savoy to Paddington Station so you would start “Leave on the right Savoy Court, Left the Strand etc, etc” until you reached the destination. The ‘Leave on the right’ bit is to do with establishing the direction you are travelling when leaving a particular point, and you all know that Savoy Court is the only place in the UK you drive on the right hand side of the road. If you don’t know where the start or finish point of a question was you would have to say “Sorry Sir/Madam don’t know that one” and they would ask you another, generally more well known point. This is called ‘dropping points’ and you would be marked on a combination of how good your routes are, how fluently you could call them and how many points you dropped. An A, B or C gave you 6, 4 or 3 points and 12 points in total got you through to the next level of appearances. There are three levels of appearances before your do a final stage of suburban routes, one final exam and then you get your badge. Easy huh?

But the point of telling you all that is to try to give you an idea that when you were sitting in that waiting room (and probably for the previous 48 hours) you would be thinking that your kindly examiner might ask you ANYTHING they want. And they did (and still do) ask you anything they want. There is no set list of points to learn, that could never work in a city like London, just this vague definition of what counts as a point of interest (POI) from TfL; “This can be a street, a square, etc. or a named building, in other words anywhere that a taxi passenger might ask to be taken”. So,as I may have already said, anywhere! And all the major places would be covered, stations, hotels, hospitals, restaurants etc, etc, but each examiner would have their own little set of points that they liked to ask and some would be ridiculously obscure and some have even gained enough notoriety outside of the taxi trade that they are quite well known. So know we have well known obscure knowledge points. Still with me? Why do the examiners ask these places? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that but I think it’s for two main reasons. One is that to go and look for these places made you go to parts of the city you wouldn’t have gone to normally and secondly, it gives you a level of knowledge way above just places & roads. You end up with stories to tell and history to impress gullible tourists with. With the help of twitter, I have tried to gather together as much about the more obscure, interesting and just downright strange places that get asked on the knowledge. And I think in doing this it’ll help show why the knowledge should never, ever be got rid of.

There are certainly POIs that have crossed over to the mainstream, Policemans Coat Hook in Gt NewPort Street and Giro the Nazi Dog in Carlton House Terrace are two that immediately spring to mind, but I’m going to try and list as many as I can and where merited pass on some of the stories that go with them. Some of these stories may be complete porkies, some may be myth. some may be a combination of truth, myth and porkies but I’ll let you all make up your own minds. What I do know is that some of the stories are great and are certainly well worth sharing. So here goes, starting with the more well known.

Policeman’s Coat Hook, Great Newport St –  a POI that is literally a hook on the wall on what, when I did the KoL anyway, was the Photographers Gallery right near the junction with Long Acre, St Martins Lane, Garrick St & Cranbourne St. Because this was such a busy junction a policeman would be posted there to direct traffic and the hook was supplied for him to hang his cape up in warmer weather.

Giro the Nazi Dog, Carlton House Terrace – Before World War II the German Embassy was on Carlton House Terrace and Giro was owned by Dr Leopold von Hoesch, ambassador from 1932 to 1936. Giro died in 1934 and was given a full ceremonial burial. His grave is close to the Duke of York Steps.

2 Cherubs On the Phone – In the garden of 2 Temple Place (in itself a fascinating building with a fascinating history) are 2 statues of “cherubs” holding what may or may not be early versions of a telephone. I cannot tell you how many punters have asked to be taken here. None, that’s how many.

The London Nose, Admiralty Arch – One of thirty five noses that were attached to buildings in 1997 by artist Rick Buckley, this is one of between 7 & 10 that still survive. One smartarse examiner would include it in his questions so that he could ask KoL students “Take me from the London Eye to the London Nose”. Oh how we’d laugh at this great joke.

Methane Lampost, Carting Lane – The rear of the Savoy is a veritable warren of small streets, relatively unchanged over the years. In Carting Lane is last surviving methane lamppost, or to give it it’s full name – ‘Patent Sewer Ventilating Lantern’. Certainly until recent years it was still operational.

Three Camels Corner, junction of Eastcheap & Lovat Lane – Don’t know much about this one, just got a photo from one of my cabbie colleagues @martinwhufc1. Above the door to what is now a HSBC bank is a relief of, er, three camels.

Spies Lamppost, Audley Square – Mentioned in this BBC story the lamppost was used by Russian spies some of whom may, or may not, have lived next door to Ian Fleming.

Nelson’s Fleet, The Mall – I wish I could remember where I read it, but apparently it is a matter of debate as to exactly what is depicted on the top of the lampposts down The Mall. The story seems to have some variations but generally goes along these lines. Each lamppost along The Mall has a boat on top, they supposedly depict Nelson’s fleet and Nelson is supposedly inspecting his fleet from atop his column. But I know for a fact that Nelson does not look down The Mall and is in fact looking pretty much directly south to Trafalgar itself. There is also the fact that each boat atop the lampposts is identical and therefore we pretty quickly run into some problems trying to see it as his fleet. But it’s a nice story and as is the way with these things, it seems a little churlish to spoil it, so I won’t dig any deeper.

Burton Tailor Mosaic, Chrisp Street – If you do a search on Google Images for “Burton Tailor Mosaic” it’s pleasing to see that quite a few of these lovely mosaics from the doorways of Burton shops seem to have survived. One particular examiner who particularly specialises in obscure east London points would ask for this particular one situated so handily on the corner of Chrisp Street & Susannah St, site of a former shop.

Mice Eating Cheese, Philpot Lane – London’s smallest public statue sits on the wall between a Cafe Nero and Jamies Wine Bar, apparently commemorating the death of two workers who plunged to their deaths fighting over the lost contents of a packed lunch during the construction of the nearby Monument. Where was health & safety then, eh?

“Little St Pauls”, Vauxhall Bridge – Look over the side of Vauxhall Bridge and there are a series of statues depicting various turn of the 19th/20th Century worthy themes including Agriculture, Science, Fine Arts, Education etc, I’m sure you get the picture. One of these statues (Architecture I’m guessing) holds a small scale St Paul’s. So guess what out smartarse examiners would ask? “Big St Paul’s” to “Little St Paul’s”. The scamps.

“Little Ben”, Victoria Street – last of the hi-lar-ious “take me from big to little” type questions that got asked involves a clock tower that mimics it’s big brother just down the road. Given all of the building work that is going on in the area I don’t recall seeing it recently. I hope it is being well looked after as London shifts and changes around it.

Tower Bridge Chimney, Tower Bridge – this, for reasons I haven’t quite worked out has become my favourite. I don’t recall learning it when I did the KoL so it was a joy to hear about it’s existence recently and it tickled me immensely. On the north side of the bridge are a series of blue lampposts but if you look carefully enough one of them doesn’t have a lamp on it’s post. It’s also a different design to the other posts. This is because it’s a chimney for the fire that kept the guards warm in their room under the bridge. Those clever Victorians, eh? Why have a normal chimney when you can disguise it as lamppost?

So there you have it, a little peek into the perils of KoL examinations and the kinds of “points of interest” that could get asked. But as previously mentioned, I wouldn’t have it any other way. All that stuff goes towards what make London Licensed Taxi Drivers the best in the world. And that day when somebody asks to visit Giro the Nazi the Dog, how impressed are they going to be when I tell them I know exactly where it is?

Unfinished business

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So, you train hard, focus harder, wind yourself up into a tighter than tight bundle of nerves, then the weather intervenes. After all the hype, all my nagging for you all to sponsor me (and apparently 2 months of mill pondesque sea conditions) the remnants of a storm that skirted the south coast on Friday and Saturday put paid to all that effort. The organisers took the sensible, but hugely disappointing, decision to cancel the Poole swim on Friday night.

Despite knowing that there was now way I would have completed the swim in the prevailing conditions, I’ve still never felt quite such a sense of disappointment. Certainly not since I was, wrongly, given out LBW on 84 when playing the innings of my life in Barbados. But, irrational as it may seem, I feel I’ve let people down, that the £2k you’ve helped me raise is “unearned” and that I still need to do something to make that right. What that something might be I haven’t quite worked out. I’m already doing a 2k swim for Macmillan this coming Saturday but, if I’m honest, that’s a relatively easy distance for me to complete. So I’m looking for another, bigger challenge and would certainly welcome suggestions for anything swim based you lot might come up with. Perhaps I’ll just have to try and swim as far as possible in the Lido (current longest swim is 40 lengths, 3.6k) with some friends and family to validate what I do, but there is a possibility my challenge might have to wait until next summer. But either way, watch this space because I have some unfinished business.

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Waving, not drowning

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in 6 days time I will have completed my charity swim. So I thought I’d give you all a little update and some thoughts about my swimming experience generally. Since starting my training I have clocked up nearly 70 miles (112km to be precise) in the Lido which, if I was so inclined, would just about get me from home to Southampton. I’ve actually done more than that but not all my swims have been recorded and I spent most of June relearning how to swim. I’ve managed, with the help of my wetsuit, to swim over 2 miles (40 lengths of the Lido) in one go and feel fitter than I have for many, many years. Up until this morning I (you lot) have raised over £1800 which is brilliant.  All good stuff and I’m so glad I gave myself the challenge to swim such a long distance. But doing that training gives you lot’s of time to think, and thinking can be dangerous can’t it? 

Really, honestly, I love swimming. Why would I regularly get up at 6am to get down to the Lido and set myself such a big challenge as completing a 3km sea swim? Only a fool would do that if they didn’t love it.  Wouldn’t they? But there is a part of me that thinks that swimming is a completely unnatural thing to do, that humans should stick to the land where, you know, we won’t die horribly from drowning. I don’t actually think I’m going to drown, after months of training I like to think I’m getting quite good at swimming, but you get quite a lot of time to think in the water. And occasionally I do think “What if I just forget how to swim?” or inexplicably completely run out of energy? Some view swimming as a spiritual endeavour, where you are at one with nature, feeling the water on your body and morphing into some Tarka the Otter type figure. These are the same people that scoff at those that wear wetsuits and proudly boast of how their fingers and toes nearly fell off swimming the Great North Passage.  And I do understand their enthusiasm for cold water swimming, I get a fantastic buzz from swimming in 12 degree water, but if it’s proper cold I’ll happily don my wetsuit, fit as many caps over my head as possible and swim feeling comfortable.

Swimming in Tooting Bec Lido, especially at this time of year when it’s less busy, is an absolute pleasure. You can often be the only person in the water and I enjoy the way the Lido gradually get’s busier around you as you swim, with the hardcore SLSC (South London Swimming Club) members greeting each other and often gossiping as they swim, you feel the Lido coming alive. As you swim you will see new people entering the water and finding their own space in the watery expanse. Some with bare minimum of kit and thrashing their way through the first length to beat the shock of the cold out of their system, some with more kit than a Sports Direct shop. The triathletes are VERY serious about their swimming and have the kit to prove it, complete with energy drinks, pull bouys, kickboards and an attitude that says “I SWIM HARD”. But their presence in the water adds to the experience, their wetsuit clad bodies moving up and down the Lido like menacing U-boats. It’s the Lido, and the people there, that makes swimming a pleasure for me, a pleasure that I hope will help me complete my swim next week and will stay with me for years to come. Oh yeah, and not drowning, that’s a good thing too.

You can, of course, still donate to my charity swim here  – http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=RichardCudlip

Xmas London Quiz 2010

Greetings one and all, I trust you have been having a fab time with your nearest & dearest.  You may, or may not, be getting a trifle bored after the extended break, or you may just want a distraction between eating & drinking.  Either way, I present to you my Xmas London Quiz 2010.  Hopefully the questions will make sense, if you need any clarification feel free to drop me an email to rjcudlip@gmail.com.  And when you’re ready for the answers just let me know via email or on Twitter (@mrcudlip) and I’ll send them over to you, enjoy!

Xmas Quiz V2

 

it’s been a while – have you missed me?

As you can see from the photos taken whilst out and about with my iPhone, I haven’t been completely idle for the past 3 months, oh no, I’m very busy and important.  Amongst other things I have been;

  • eating porridge,
  • watching X Factor with the Cabbette, and in the midst of doing so invented a new bit of slang.  Jedward are indeed, a couple of X Factor’s….,
  • having staring contests with Woody the cat,
  • buying a cardigan,
  • delivering leaflets on behalf of a certain political party that people reckon have no chance of winning the next election,
  • mixing it with the illegal minicabs outside Oxo – and being happy to take work off them, even when punters only go to Southwark Station,
  • seeing the wall of ice go up in Belgrave Square to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall,
  • listening to, and tweeting about, Dexys Midnight Runners, only to be told that Phil Collins is better,
  • crossing Albert Bridge while I still can,
  • eating ginger & creme fraiche scones,
  • staring at blank pieces of paper that eventually got filled with stuff,
  • going to Kilburn to watch Luke Haines and actually, you know, meet real people and talk to them,
  • laughing out loud when my twitter stream shows “Well done Scholesy!” and “spawny little ginger twat” in consecutive tweets,
  • mightily impressed by the Cabbette drawing of Woody the cat,
  • visited William Morris’s house in darkest norf London,
  • receiving a taxi door-stop as a Xmas present,
  • trying to get the record for a photo with the most amount of cabbies chatting in The Gas Chamber (the underground rank at Euston), I think the current (disputed) record is 9,
  • taking photos of Battersea Power Station with my iphone that make the power station look like it’s a bout 3 miles away,
  • watching Chelsea play and not really caring much about it,
  • eating very expensive sausages for the my birthday (to be followed a few weeks later by a trip up West to eat in the Skylon and get over emotional watching Warhorse)
  • entering the Cabbette’s knitted cat into TV Burp’s the K Factor,
  • buying new trainers,
  • switching my meter on and being ready to work before 9am on at least one occasion,
  • listening to Thomas Dolby and wondering what on earth made me decide to buy a whole albums worth of his via iTunes,
  • discovering, with the help of my tweeting cabby colleagues, that there is a taxi rank outside Quaglino’s.

And from now on, at least until I next lose interest, I intend to keep you much more up to date to what’s going on in the Cabbies Capital world.  I hope you’ll all forgive me my laziness and let’s see if we can all get back into the swing of things together.