Deaths and Departures April 2012

Easter is always a time of reflection: spring in England and autumn in Durban. I have reason to take stock. I arrived back in Durban on the 2nd of April. On the 3rd, I went to the funeral of Cosmas Desmond, an anti-apartheid activist, member of the Durban community, and father to one of HEARD’s first and highly appreciated members of staff – Chris Desmond. There is a touching obituary in the UK Telegraph at . The service was held in the chapel at Nazareth House, a home for the elderly, just up the road from my flat. The service was Catholic and very formal. I hope, at some point, there will be a more intimate celebration of this remarkable man’s life.

The previous weekend was also contemplative as, five years after she died, we scattered my mother’s ashes. Brother Derek and sister Gill came to Norwich, from Cape Town and London respectively. On a sunny Saturday we drove, with Ailsa, to Weybourne, with a beautiful, tiered pebbled beach on the North Norfolk coast. It is not far from Sheringham where mum live happily for some years, and it seemed ideal for our final goodbye.

The occasion was not without stress because each sibling had to be consulted as fully and tactfully as possible. (And I am not tactful). Therefore, when I phoned the undertakers to ask they had the ashes ready for me to pick up I was dismayed to hear the receptionist say: “Do you want a scattertube?”
I was flummoxed, “A what?”
She explained it was a cardboard tube that allows the ‘scatterer’ to have some control over the process, rather than just dumping the ashes out of the urn/paper bag/or in South Africa a Ziploc plastic bag.
The she pointed me to the web and said, “Just type in scattertubes.”
The economist in me lead to the next question, “what do they cost?”
‘Our’ undertakers do not charge for them but you have to choose the design: ‘seaside sunset’, ‘forest glade’, ‘mountain view’ and so on.

I really did not want to have to make choices but after due thought I picked ; and my mother’s ashes were poured into the North Sea by a brave Gill, who stepped into the water to do this. The next question was what to do with the tube – we filled it with pebbles and seawater and threw it out into the sea where it will degrade overtime. I hope the tide was out when we did that, I never thought of that.

Prior to this Ailsa and I had some rare time away. We left Norwich on the evening of Sunday 11th March after supper, flying directly to Edinburgh using Flybe. We hired a car and spent the night at a Premier Inn near the airport. It was not too hard to find as Premier Inns have purple signage. They are basic but good and cheap hotels. On Monday we got on the motorway and drove north going across the Forth Road Bridge. It was great to see the famous railway bridge with its iconic tracing of girders next to us. Looking it up, I discovered that the famed “never-ending task” of painting the Forth Bridge, (“as soon as it is painted, the crew has to start again”) is in fact erroneous. Thank you Wikipedia!

We drove straight north past Perth and then through the upland area past Pitlochry to Inverness along very good roads, with the Cairngorms in the distance (some snow still visible but it was warm in the valley!). Ailsa remembers a small, windy road in the mid sixties, with the drama of the exceptionally steep, Devil’s elbow. We stopped on the way for an excellent cup of coffee at a modern glass and wood comfort stop just off the road in the middle of nowhere, a former tourist office. It was pretty, offered internet connection, good food and information.

Across from our vantage point on the next bridge, at Kessock, Inverness, did not look prepossessing: no more than a sprawling urban site on the coast although Ailsa remembers it as a mecca, which offered rare treats like dried bananas, oranges and Allinsons’ bread. We had no need to go in so don’t know what delights it has to offer now. For Ailsa, it meant the fun of putting the car on to the rather elderly Eilean Dubh ferry which must have gone constantly to and fro between the Moray and Beauley Firths, with the added frissson of making it back before the last sailing on the way home
We followed a small road through the tamed, peaceful countryside of the Black Isle and drove up to Fortrose through the pretty fishing village, Avoch.

We spent the middle of the day there looking at places Ailsa had known as a child. This included the beach on which the family camped an entire summer when they first moved there – it is now a caravan park. They later moved to a croft high up above Rosemarkie on the way to Cromarty. The esteemed Fortrose Academy is now a monstrosity of a building but the older stonework school is still there. It must be catering for students from across the whole of the Black Isle. New, glass fronted homes are being constructed to look over the shining Moray Firth. Retirement anyone?

We had lunch at a cafe named after the ferry which I thought must mean Black Isle in Gaelic. We then drove to Aberdeen going through, Nairn, Elgin and Inverurie. Inverurie, Ailsa found later was the area her paternal grandfather came from. It was a long day in the car, but worth it.

Aberdeen is called the Granite city and indeed it is a grey place, hilly, robust and provident. We found the hotel we were staying at: the Atholl Hotel, a small but friendly place and ate dinner in the bar there. On Tuesday morning Ailsa walked with me as I was giving a presentation at the University of Aberdeen in the Health Economics Research Unit. I met up with my host Mandy Ryan, had coffee, gave the seminar to a packed room, and was then taken for lunch. After this I took a taxi into town to meet Ailsa who had walked into town.

Ailsa had spent the day tracking down churches that her grandfather, Cannon Vane Walker, had been involved in and showed me two. Her grandfather was an Episcopalian minister who served in a number of locations in the north east of Scotland. One neglected little church, St Clement’s on the Quay, was surrounded by warehouses and located beside the docks within spitting distance of huge boats. It is now derelict, but the quaint building is still a haven with spreading trees, and a graveyard full of tragic stories and heroic individuals who depended on the sea for a livelihood. One grave stone particularly caught my eye.
“Erected by Thomas and Barbara Sinclair
in memory of their son James
who died 30th August 1873
aged 32 years
also their eldest son Thomas
who died of a fever
Also William and John who died in infancy And one of a day old”
They buried five children did not name or give the gender of the child who with in a day of the birth!
An inspiring place for Ailsa’s father to grow up; the Manse was hard by the church. Her mother has exercise books of stories of sea adventures and drawings of ships completed by him when a youngster which were found only recently, left at her parent’s family home when they went abroad. Too bad he is dead and never saw them again! They lie, untouched in Ailsa’s stepfather’s home.

Meanwhile, I was suffering badly from foot pain and was quite heroic, tramping onwards to visit the even quainter St Margaret’s church, high on its own hill in the midst of the city with a view far out to sea. I was grateful that one of the things we did was to buy supportive inserts for my shoes which have gradually made a huge difference – highly recommended for severe foot pain: although five minutes of exercise twice a day would be even better, but I find it really hard to make this commitment!

This grand dad seemed to have shifted about with churches in Cuminstown, Cupar in East Fife, and St Andrews. Not to mention St Ninian’s Cathedral, Perth.

Wednesday was a free day and we drove from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. Before we did this however we went to the Gordon Highlanders Museum. They were a famous Scottish regiment and were the first British troops to be deployed to Swaziland in 1963. I well remember as a six or seven year old walking along the road near our house and coming across two of the soldiers strolling past wearing uniform, which included of course kilts. We spoke to them but did not understand a word they said in reply. It made a huge impression on me and I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit the museum. It is also clearly a social hub for people who served in, or were linked with the regiment and there were many who wanted to help us. This I find a little embarrassing and so having been there, was quite happy to leave. We drove through the old town in Aberdeen, feeling that the place would merit a longer visit at some point.

Aberdeen is the third biggest city in Scotland and our limited impression is of a sprawling city. We drove along the coastal road looking for a place to have coffee and going through what must have been fishing villages, Stonehaven and Johnshaven until we got to Montrose where we stopped for lunch with a flurry of teenage school children in what appeared to be a medieval prison. In the summer or snow the drive must be really beautiful, but at the tail end of winter it was just a shadow of what it could be. We went through Dundee to St Andrews and walked around that university town. Again a place where Ailsa’s grandfather spent time. It is primarily a university town with the other major activity being golf. We had tea in a Christian centre attached to lovely Episcopalian a church and explored further but it was getting really chilly and there are only so many churches one can do in a day.

Then it was on through Edinburgh to find a place to stay near Queen Margaret University. Ailsa navigated and we were able to find a Premier Inn right next to the campus, again, purple lights were a stroke of genius. The next morning we went to the University, which is a new, self-contained campus in a green field site. We were met by our hosts and shown their working space. Quite bizarrely they have open plan offices for academics. This is completely contrary to anything I have seen before. I gave a seminar there on ‘the sustainability of the AIDS response’ to an interesting and interested audience.

We drove into Edinburgh to find our hotel which is part of the College of Surgeons building and is now a fantastic modern hotel ‘10 Hill Street’ in case anyone is looking for a good hotel which even had (limited) parking. As it was about five o’clock we walked down to Princes Street and the Royal mile and ambled around the city stopping for a bit of a disappointing pizza place.

On Friday, my commitment was to give a talk at Edinburgh University in the afternoon. This, as in Aberdeen, was on the ‘safe sex/no sex hypothesis’. There was a small audience, but to be honest at 15.00 on a Friday I was surprised there was anyone there at all. We had walked up to Edinburgh Castle on the morning and the overarching impression is of a city geared to tourism. In the evening we had dinner with colleagues from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh University, and the Department for International Development.

The only Flybe flight to Norwich on a Saturday leaves at 06.55 it meant we have had to be up and out of the hotel by 05.00 to find our way to the airport and drop off the car. We managed to accomplish this task well. The plane took off on time and we were home by nine where we were met by Doug with the dog.

It was a great trip, enjoyed by both of us. Combining a certain amount of work with pleasure was absolutely the right way to go and I really enjoyed it. While I think learning to use a GPS would be a good move, Ailsa managed to navigate through the cities and countryside with considerable skill and patience. Scotland is on my list of places to go back to soon.