Assault and Battery

I spent my first month in Waterloo starting in mid-January, and came back to the UK for 10 days in February. On the Saturday before I left, for the first time, the temperature climbed to 0°C. It has been as cold as -25°C. The town was covered by a white blanket. This is beautiful and has the effect of muffling sound; it makes everything seem very peaceful. There is a downside; it took me at least half an hour to dig the snow off the drive so I could get the car on the road. There is a snow plough that comes down the cul-de-sac where I am living that clears the road, leaving banks of snow across the driveway. The snow shovel is large and, although snow is light, I was sweating by the time it was cleared.

The house I am renting is large and, fortunately, well heated. During my first few weeks I sat listening to chamber music coming from the house next door. The Kitchener Waterloo Chamber Music Society is run by a retired couple. They have built a music room at the back of their house in order to hold regular concerts, at least two a week. They have been doing this for a long time and so it is a slick while homely operation. The tickets are not cheap, but the room is superb – acoustically good, with an eclectic collection of chairs. During the intermission, coffee and soft drinks are available – the coffee in polystyrene cups.

The first concert I went to as their guests was a symphony for wind and piano. The music was Beethoven, Poulenc and Mozart. There was an oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano.  I am such a Philistine that I am not certain what the instruments were apart from the clarinet and piano. The dynamics of the event, and the people, reminded me of the books of Robertson Davies who wrote so beautifully of small Canadian university towns.

I am really enjoying the new job. My colleagues are exceptional, they have an amazing breadth and depth of intellectual capacity and the chance to bounce ideas around is extremely rewarding. The building is underpopulated and there have been times when I have been the only one on the floor which is a little disheartening. Everyone is aware of this and I believe it will be addressed. Next door to us is the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). They will be moving in to the south wing which will increase head count in the building.

I joined the Wilfrid Laurier gym. This is about 15 minutes’ walk away, longer through the snow. It has just been refurbished and has all the equipment I could possibly want. Interestingly one of my colleagues remarked on the fact that it seemed to be very busy. This was not my experience and I told him as much. We then established he based his view of its ‘busyness’ on glancing at it when he driving past. The front of the gym faces the road. Clients gather there like moths to a flame. Two rows back there is virtually no one.

I have also been going to a Moksha yoga studio. This is hot yoga, very pleasant in the cold weather. It is extremely busy and they have marked out where one can put one’s mat. The whole place is well appointed and the staff is extremely helpful. I keep forgetting to take my water bottle (rehydration is fairly important with this style of yoga) and they are quite willing to lend me one. As with all yoga studios, in my experience, boots and shoes have to be taken off at the doorway. This is all very well except when one walks back in bare or stockinged feet and steps on ice or snow that has not yet melted.

In addition to colleagues and students there are numerous events, seminars and public lectures in the building and the universities. I have been to some, they are interesting and stimulating. Back in Durban, according to the news reports and the round robins that I get, it is the time when the students go on strike. The problem is a shortage of money but I fear the protests are driven by the ‘wrong’ people. The issue of entry to the universities in South Africa is one which has not been properly addressed for at least 20 years.

The title of this blog is assault and battery. Let me explain. I was sitting in my office in the garden in Norwich, trying to write when I was disturbed by the dreadful noise in front of my office. I stood up and looked out to see that the hawk that lives in this neighbourhood had a smaller bird pinioned to the ground. It was desperately trying to escape, shrieking furiously. My first instinct was to grab my phone and photograph the event. I thought it was a pigeon, and they do not merit sympathy in my book. The next thing was that a Blue Jay flew down squawking. I realised that the intended victim was also a Blue Jay. I flung open the office door and the birds took off in different directions. Nature red in tooth and claw! Blue Jays of course rob the nests of smaller birds so this may not have been a fair decision.

These amused me. I hope they will amuse you.

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Antoine Laurain, The president’s hat. This little book was first published as Le Chapeau de Mitterand by Flammarion in Paris in 2012. I was not sure what to expect, it is one of the first books I took out of the Waterloo Public Library. It traces the progress of Mitterand’s hat from the time it is left (and stolen) in a bistro in Paris until it is finally returned to him in Venice. The hat has mystical effects on all who come to own it; from a young woman who picks it up in a train and is given the courage to break-up with her married lover and write about it; to a perfumer who is able, after a hiatus of eight years, to make a new scent. The book is very well translated, and an easy and charming read. Is it true the French cavalry’s motto was, “To our wives! Our horses! And to those who ride them!”  The book has an epilogue telling us what happened to the main characters. Ironically, the owners of the house I am living in have left a lot of books on the shelves (as we agreed) and one I picked out and considered reading is the classic Oliver Sacks’, The man who mistook his wife for a hat.

Pierre Szalowski, Fish change direction in cold weather, Harper Collins, 2013 272 pages originally in French as Mais qu’est-ce que tu fais là, tout seul?.  It is about the 1998 ice storm in Montreal as seen through the eyes of a boy of about 10. The cast of characters includes a young Russian scientist who is tracking the movement of fish in an aquarium, and faces all of his work coming to naught as the temperature drops.   The parents of the boy face a marriage breakup, this is averted as a result of the storm and the trials and tribulations everyone goes through. An interesting and readable book.


The flight from Toronto to Amsterdam was only six hours, not enough time to sleep after dinner. I read two articles for review, wrote a few paragraphs and then watched films.

Inside Llewyn Davis.This is a Coen Brothers comedy drama set in New York’s folk music scene in 1961. Llewyn Davis is an unsuccessful singer playing in smoky clubs. It tracks his lack of income, place to stay and growing desperation. It is probably the way it was for many at the time in that genre of music. Perhaps it would be interesting to fast forward and see what happened to these people 50 years later. The death of folk icon Pete Seager marked the end of an era.

Last Vegas. This is a comedy starring Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline. It is about four school friends who get together in Las Vegas as they approach 70. It is an amusing film with some good observations on what it means to age and the nature of early friendships.