Changing Seasons, Changing Continents: October 2011

I have had a good writing period. I have been trying to write a definitive Political Economy of Swaziland for a number of years and have finally made significant progress. I have almost completed the first five chapters, and am about 75 percent of the way through remaining five (or possibly six) chapters depending on how the final structure looks.

Everyone who knows me is well aware how much I want to write this book. Swaziland has such a special place in my heart. The book tells the story of the country over the last 100 years and tracks how, in some ways, the HIV epidemic was inevitable. It warns that it is ‘one minute to midnight’. I feel quite privileged to have the knowledge and links in Swaziland to write this. The publisher is looking for readers to go through the first five chapters in order to draw up a contract. Hopefully I can deliver it in the new year. My personal goal is to have it completed in January 2012, although the publication process will take at least another nine months.

I am giving the first option to the publisher who did my very first book, in 1989, James Currey. This was an edited collection with the, not very riveting, title Industrialisation and Investment Incentives in Southern Africa. I actually found it a very interesting project in 1987, how things change! I can’t help thinking how different the writing process was then and now. Today I write, and if I am missing a piece of information, go on the internet and get it. I think to myself, for example: ‘Swaziland does not have access to the IDA money from the World Bank does it’, so simply look it up and there is the material I need. The answer, by the way, is Swaziland is too rich to get IDA money. Back in 1988 everything was gathered, and then one wrote. I think both methods have their benefits, but I really enjoy being able to chase facts down with such ease.

As an aside I remember saying at the launch of the Industrialisation book, “When we arrived in South Africa in 1983, things were bad and they have since gotten worse.” I could not immediately work out why people found it funny. There are pictures of this launch in my personal archive and I will dig them out and post them. Book launches are now usually done in a fantastic second hand bookshop called Ike’s Books and Collectables on Florida Road (Durban, South Africa). The tradition is the author signs the wall with a thick black pen. I am delighted that my signature is there with JM Coetzee and many famous authors.

I went to Washington on Saturday 24th September for a meeting of the Copenhagen Consensus. This asked ‘How should we spend $10 billion over five years on HIV/AIDS in Africa to get the best returns’. I will post a separate note about the meeting on the HEARD and this website in a while. I was in Washington for nearly a week then had the weekend in Norwich before heading back to Durban in early October. It is good to get back to longer days, however the weekend in Norwich was most amazing weatherwise. On Saturday and Sunday it was 29°C, hotter than in Durban. Monday was slightly cooler, but not much. Rowan said it felt a bit like Armageddon, and there was a hot wind, similar to a berg wind.

Earlier we had a team of people from HEARD in the UK for a series of meetings and a conference. I played host, or part host, at four restaurants. The first, in London was in the area my colleagues were staying. I remembered a curry house called Salaam-Namaste near Coram Fields, (this is the play area where adults are only allowed if accompanied by a child). We walked over, were able to get a table, and were served an excellent meal.

We needed to host a formal dinner in a private setting. In the past the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) has provided an excellent venue and good food. I have to say that in terms of service and setting it would be hard to beat the RCS. Unfortunately the initial choice of wine was not available; apparently another function had bought all the bottles of South African wine. In addition, in their drive to nouvelle cuisine they have lost sight of the importance of taste and quantity.

In Norwich we had two meals. I had booked a table at the Belgian Monk for 10 people. When I made the booking I was told that it would depend on there being enough demand for the upstairs restaurant to be opened. My reaction was that with ten it would surely be worth it. When we got to the restaurant we faced two problems: the first was not all the party had arrived, one or two were still travelling up from London; and the second that one of our number had other engagements but wanted to sit and have a drink with us before going on. The staff member charged with looking after us was not helpful. She seemed quite unhappy that not everyone was there when we had booked for a given time. We were told people were not allowed to sit in the restaurant unless they were eating. Indeed we were even given instruction on what they had to order – not just a starter! We were told it was: “To do with the licensing laws”. So much for the service ethic!

Finally we went to Pizza Express with a very large party. My expectations were low, but I have to say I was hugely impressed. Not only was the food and service good, but the setting is superb. It is in the ultra-modern Forum building which is home to the Norwich main public library and an (horrible word but it fits) information hub. The Forum is right opposite St Peter Mancroft. This is a truly wonderful parish church. The present building was completed in 1455 but there has been a church on the site since 1075 – built by a Norman after the conquest of 1066 – I wonder what sins he was atoning for.

I want to post this to the website so let me end with one final snippet. I recently had an evening appointment at Howard College. I had to be on a telephone conference call and so drove up early and took the call on my cell phone, sitting in the quadrangle of the Memorial Tower Building. This is full of trees, greenery, and has a café. In the evening it is deserted. Unusually I was doing more listening than talking and was sitting very still. I was surprised and delighted to see family of banded mongooses, about 20 adults and babies appear. They are most interesting little animals, the Wikipedia reference is: They pretty much ignored me as they dived into the rubbish bins to forage for left-over food. I wish I had had a camera as the sight of all the little furry faces with their bright button eyes and pointed noses, peering out of the black bin liner was quite unique. I felt blessed by having had that experience.

Film Reviews

Lots of long flights means both time to work and watch films so here are a number of reviews.

The Beaver is about a man Walter Black, played by Mel Gibson, sinking into depression, losing his family, seeing his company collapse and facing what Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog’. As he clears the family home he put many things including toys in the bin. But he goes back and picks out a beaver glove puppet, the euphonious Mr Beaver, of the film. Black is about to commit suicide, jumping from a window, when the beaver intervenes and becomes his alter ego. This relationship, with him mouthing the beaver’s thoughts, in a ‘wide-boy’ British/Australian accent, becomes increasingly complex. I won’t say what happens close to the end of the film in case you see it, but it was unexpected and violent. The movie ends with the main character in hospital and, it seems, slowly recovering. The reason I choose it was it was directed by Jody Foster, who played the long suffering wife.

Little Big Soldier is a Jackie Chan movie and was in Chinese. It is set during the pre-unification civil wars of the 2nd century BC. It follows the adventures of a farmer forced to become a soldier. He is the last survivor of three brothers and his goal is to settle down with ‘five acres of land’ – which is quite enough for him, and continue the family name. In the opening scene of the film two armies, the Liang and Wei factions, clash and Chan captures an injured general from the Wei army. The reward will be enough for his farm. The story follows them as they flee through the bandit ridden and fought over countryside so Chan can hand over the hostage in Liang. It was bloody and desperate but quite riveting. Probably on a big screen it would have fantastic because the country side in which it was filmed was quite spectacular. If that is what parts of China look like I really would like to visit.

Bad Teacher with Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake is about a woman driven by the need to have money. She is dumped by her fiancé and sets out to hook another man with (financial) assets and earn enough money for a boob-job to, pardon the expression, enhance her chances. It was mildly amusing. Her teaching style was benign neglect. I can imagine teachers like her, indeed I think had some, but the plot was weak. Definitely an aeroplane film only.

Black Butterflies is the biography of South African poet Ingrid Jonker, and was deeply moving. She was born in the little town of Douglas near Kimberley in 1933. This means she will have had an upbringing that my mother would have understood well, since my South African family moved to Kimberley in the 1890s. There is a Wikipedia page but the link I will give is as this also gives access to some of her poetry. The first stanza of one featured most often in the film, and quoted by Nelson Mandela in 1994, is below.

The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga
The child is not dead
the child raises his fists against his mother
who screams Africa screams the smell
of freedom and heather
in the locations of the heart under siege

Book Reviews

Gillian Butler and Freda McManus Psychology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000 176 pages.

I am a great fan of the VSI series since they published my one on HIV/AIDS. The idea is that each book offers a concise yet cogent introduction to a particular subject. They are supposed to be written by experts, not exceed 37500 words and give pointers for further reading. I really enjoyed this book. The reason for reading it is that Douglas is doing AS level psychology and I wanted to get my head round the subject. I shall probably look for other readings they suggest.

Richard Russo, Empire Falls, Knopf, 2001, 496 pages 

A few months ago I finished Bridge of the Sighs published in 2007. I so enjoyed it that when I was in Washington I went back to my favourite second-hand bookshop to see what other books they had. I picked up Empire Falls which was his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, first published in 2001. I enjoyed it but it is extremely interesting to see how his writing skill has developed. Without a doubt the 2007 novel is better written and observed. It left me wishing it were longer. With Empire Falls I was glad to finish it. It is the same theme; a small town in New England, but in this case one that is in rapid decline.

Jussi Adler-Olsen, Mercy, Michael Joseph 2011,400 pages.

Continuing in the tradition of Scandinavian crime fiction, here is a Danish author. I think it is the first of the books to be translated. It has an improbable hypothesis to begin with, a woman imprisoned in a diving bell for year, and discovered and released through careful detective work by a troubled Danish policemen Carl Morck. He has been assigned to investigate cold cases, and takes this on. It took a little getting into but I will be happy to read other works by this author. Are crimes worse in Scandinavia – certainly they are very much more complex and darker than in other countries’ detective fiction.