The Role of the Fool

It is about a month since I last put anything on the website so this is timely. I travelled from Durban to Norwich early in May. The main reason was Douglas’s 18th birthday on 9 May, hard to believe that time has passed so quickly. I managed many other events and meetings. The first was a seminar on the ‘Political Economy and Social Drivers of the Epidemic’ held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. There was a public meeting the day before the main seminar and I was invited to present, along with Hein Marias, a South African colleague, who has written widely and wisely in this area. It was a smallish meeting and a chance to interact with a group of mostly United Kingdom-based academics. Perhaps the major lesson was we are still not taking enough notice of the political impact of AIDS. Obviously the epidemic is not homogenous and it will not have the same effect in every country, but it does have an important, and usually, ignored political impact. All the other meetings in the past month have reaffirmed this view.

After a few days in Norwich I flew to Berlin for a conference on Financing for Health and Social Protection. The title was: ‘A Global Social Protection Scheme – Moving from Charity to Solidarity’. It was organised by a friend of mine, Gorik Ooms, who is currently at the University of Antwerp. Among other things I was one of the examiners for his PhD, and he came on a course in Durban over 10 years ago. The main sponsors were Medico International and the Hélène de Beir Foundation with two  German Funders: Deutshe Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (more easily known as giz) and Bundesministerium für wirsschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Enteicklung (the Foreign Ministry, I think). These names are dreadfully long.

The idea being put forward is to develop a global compact to provide a basic level of social protection, as a right, to everyone across the world. It is a most interesting, but probably very difficult to sell, idea. The key point Gorik makes is, while today the rich world would expect to provide support to the poor, in years to come the situation might be that countries such as Brazil might be providing support to others. It works on the principle that the poor are not going to always be with us. This, of course, goes against many deep beliefs about how we operate. The Christian hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ included a verse.

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

He made them, high or lowly,

And ordered their estate.


The website where I got this, says of this stanza: “Most hymnals omit the following verse.” It points to the concept that wealth and poverty are divinely predetermined. Then there is the question of whether we need to feel better than people around us, materially and spiritually. Nonetheless I think there are very good arguments for the universal social protection and I shall, in my small way, be supportive of it. There is a role for people like Gorik to be bold and imaginative. The concept of the Fool in the medieval court was an individual who could tell truth to power, all the while in the guise of humour and fun. King Lear, which I studied for my ‘A’ levels, has a Fool who plays the role of commentator on the events around him. I think it is a part I play on occasion, certainly humour is important in messaging.

It is standard practice with meetings and conferences for there to be some kind of outing: a reward to the participants for their involvement. In Berlin this was a trip on the river through the centre of the city. We got on one of the tourist riverboats and went up and down the river for a couple of hours. There was food on the boat, German cuisine at its best, and this included sauerkraut, which I am very fond of, and plenty to drink. Perhaps the most striking thing was the remnants of the Berlin Wall. In one place, where the river had constituted the border between East and West, there were a number of crosses painted on the wall to commemorate those shot while trying to swim to freedom, very poignant.

On Sunday 20 May I flew to Toronto and was taken to the town of Waterloo. This part of Canada was mainly settled by Germans: Mennonites and Lutherans. The next town was originally called Berlin, but in 1916 the patriotic Canadians changed the name, calling it Kitchener after the British general who was Secretary of State for War. They turned their backs on the German heritage – but today it has (apparently) one of the best Oktoberfest’s in Canada. I will say more about this trip in a future posting. The town has two universities: Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier and is only about an hour and 20 minutes away from the international airport at Toronto, along an excellent road network. This was a pleasant surprise because I had thought it was a long way. I got back to Norwich on the Thursday and, as is usual with these transatlantic trips, it took me about a day to catch up with myself.

Then it was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee! This was marked in a number of ways: in London there was a river pageant, concert, service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s and procession through the city. It was marked in the provinces by street parties and various festivities organised by the local communities, cities and counties. Many places were supposed to have street parties but sadly the weather was rotten: raining and cold. I watched the river pageant and was hugely impressed by the level of organisation, the number of boats and the sheer spectacle including many events on the banks as the royal barge passed by. That really was about all I saw of the whole thing. It struck me that the level of public involvement was rather lower than normal (and than expected). While the Queen is hugely respected, with good reason, the rest of the Royal family is rather letting her down. I hope she enjoyed it.

I went down to London on the second of the two public holidays, 5 June; to help run a meeting for the Rush Foundation This website is well worth looking at. Rush is a new foundation focused on funding disruptive, innovative ideas in the fight against HIV in Africa. The founders, Marina Galanti and Kim Duncan, set out to ‘provide fast, effective funding for alternative ideas to address the pandemic and its social effects’. They have, in two short years, managed a number of innovative initiatives.

The meeting was set up to ask: What is ‘A new economic framework for better HIV decision making in sub-Saharan Africa’? The basic underlying premise is there will have to be choices made on how to deploy money, especially in the context of declining resources. When we started thinking about who to invite to such an event we made a list of people we really wanted to see there. We sent out the invitations and to my delighted amazement nearly everyone accepted. We had Sir Roy Anderson from Imperial College giving the keynote speech. Peter Piot the current head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and former executive director of  UNAIDS and Paul Collier of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University gave the opening presentations. Nearly everyone stayed for the full two days (as they should have). Careful planning meant that each person had something to do: presenting, chairing or reporting. Round tables also worked in ensuring engagement. The catering was the best I have had a meeting, not stodgy and very tasty. Even the coffee was reasonable.

The calibre of participants was exceptional and international. I was particularly delighted that there was representation from Swaziland, South Africa and Botswana. Everyone was invited in their personal capacities rather than representing institutions. The background paper, written by Chris Desmond who began his working career at HEARD, was excellent. The venue was the Royal Geographical Society, located opposite to Kensington Gardens. The room we used had a scale model of Mount Everest and the surrounding peaks. In addition there were photographs and portraits of explorers of earlier eras on the wall. It was a great place. I was pleased with the outcome of the meeting. There were both innovative and important new ideas, including some which can be put into action soon; it will be good to see some quick wins.

Our outing for this meeting was amazing and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to beat it. It was to go to the Royal Opera House in Covent Gardens to see the Royal Ballet performing ‘The Prince of the Pagodas’, choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and music by Benjamin Britten. This is the first full-length professional ballet I have ever seen. It was an amazing experience and we were treated like royalty. We arrived early and were given a backstage tour, taken to a private area for drinks, and our glasses were refilled in both the intervals. After the event we had a sit down dinner with members of the cast. There were two cast members on my table – one of whom had played the Fool. In the ballet his role is to orchestrate the events for the principles. The venue was plush and wonderful, there are some new bits and they have been well designed and built.

Details of the ballet can be found on Wikipedia (of course), and there are not very kind reviews in the press- the Independent’s is at . Reading the review it struck me the reviewers know a huge amount about the art of ballet and the scores and their complaints are with Britten more than the cast and directors. However I thought it was amazing. The director of the Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason, joined us for dinner. Apart from having been with the company for 54 years (she retires in a few months), and being completely elegant and gracious, she was born in Johannesburg and came to London with her family to dance at the age of 16. The whole event: meeting, accommodation and outing were so well organised and it was an intellectual treat as well.


The long haul flights to Canada gave me a chance to catch up with films.

Iron Lady. The story of Margaret Thatcher. In it she is shown as an old lady and it is a series of flash backs. As I lived through a part of the Thatcher Government it was most interesting to see this interpretation of the time. She took power in 1979 and was Prime Minister until 1990. I was in Botswana during the Falklands War (and my view was that of course they had to be taken back, but this was not everyone’s feeling). It was rumoured that when Argentine invaded the Islands the British High Commission was told to open their safe and take out a particular envelope. When it in turn was opened it had instructions on ‘what to do if the Falklands are invaded’. Meryl Streep is excellent as Thatcher especially the portrayal of the struggle with dementia; she deservedly got an Oscar for the part. It is actually quite sad to reflect how old age can, but not necessarily, rob a person of independence and a place in life.  Richard E Grant from Waterford and Swaziland had a part in the film.

 J Edgar. A second movie about a powerful individual, this is the story of J Edgar Hoover who set up the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, having been director of the Bureau of Investigation the predecessor to the FBI from 1924. He died, in harness in 1972 aged 77. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Part of the plot was the possible gay relationship between Hoover and his deputy; this was more than hinted at in the film. We learn from the film that Hoover’s mother was anti-gay and this clearly had a deep impact on him. The story of the Lindberg baby kidnapping was presented as one of the main reasons the FBI gained so much power through the use of science to track down and convict the kidnapper.  I found it a deeply fascinating story, but troubling to see how power can become the end rather than the means, and how, once it is entrenched, it is so hard to shift.