Still Snowing!

Trying to start a new chapter is a challenge. I think though, the place to begin is to be grateful to have the chance to do it.

I arrived back in Waterloo in late March with the goal (other than work) of finding and buying a property. This has been made much easier by amazing modern technology. We have been able to look at properties online, mark them as favourites or possibles, and take virtual tours of the houses and flats. It is remarkable. Then, when it is bought, I will (I assume), be able to put a link on the website, and anyone who is interested will be able to have the same access.

Of course not very encouraging about my return was that the pristine white snow has begun to melt. It is now at the point where November 2013’s dog turds and cigarette butts are starting to emerge from dirty grey piles. Having said that there was a light snow fall the first weekend I was back, soon we were briefly back to pure white. However I was able to clear the car, drive and path easily.

The routine on a Saturday is to go to the farmer’s market in Kitchener to buy meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. There is a strong emphasis on middle European in the offerings there. I have heard Polish, Russian, German, Hungarian and some Serbian spoken. One of the buskers has an Oompah, but most are playing guitars and singing painful country songs about squashed skunks. It is quite an experience, the market, not the skunks.

The week in Norwich in March was relatively uneventful. I am really looking forward to getting down to some writing. The key thing will be to get organised. In general I have avoided blogging about what I need to do. This would make it seem like a real commitment, and people, other than the family could bug me about the deadlines! So here goes. There are two books that need to be with the publishers by the end of the year. The first is the Political Economy of Swaziland which is in an early draft form. One of my friends read it. His comment was that it is needs both rethinking and rewriting, there is too much that is personal in it. So that means going back to the drawing board, but at least I have most of the material I need. The other major writing project is the second edition of the HIV/AIDS Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press, assuming they accept the proposal.

The journey to Waterloo had good and bad parts. The plane from Amsterdam was absolutely packed, I had an economy ticket and although I was sitting in the premium economy I was not looking forward to the trip. I asked, at various points, if there was going to be any possibility of an upgrade. I was told that, other than by paying €400 and cashing in 25,000 air miles, it was not going to happen.

I had been sitting on the plane for about 15 minutes as it filled up. It was clearly going to be cramped, and there was a loud and unhappy baby three rows behind me. Then one of the cabin staff came to me and said: “We need to move you.” So off I went, upstairs into business class, where I had two seats to myself. What a score! I read project documents for the first two hours, drank three glasses of a very fine Argentinian Malbec, watched the second Hobbit movie, and then worked on letters and taxes.

I decided to take a taxi back to Waterloo rather than waiting for the Airways Transit Flyer. These are cheaper, but more uncomfortable, and also would have gone via a busy road as opposed to taking the toll. This was a good choice as the roads were very busy.

The taxi driver, a Pakistani with a beanie and a 10 o’clock shadow, had been in Canada for 25 years. I asked him what he had thought had happened to the Malaysia Airlines plane. From there we got on to the events of 9/11 and I was subjected to an astonishing diatribe which included the following comments: it is all a plot for the Americans to invade Afghanistan and Iraq; the buildings collapsed in a way that suggested it had all been planned; nobody I have spoken to has ever told me they knew someone on the planes; all the Jewish workers, 5000 of them, who would normally have been in these buildings did not go to work on that day.

I knew there were people who had these attitudes and beliefs but this is the first time I have ever come across it. Being driven at high speed, down a very busy road, in heavy rain, by a fanatic, foaming at the mouth, was an unnerving experience. I changed the subject.

So that was the return journey. Now let me talk about Waterloo. There is one common view of people who have been here for a while. It is a city that is better than it was! I am not sure if I have mentioned this before, but in a few months the city will mark the 100th year since it was named Waterloo. This part of Ontario was settled by mainly German Mennonites and the town was originally called Berlin. On 28 July 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo. (As a foot note, thank heavens for the spell check function I had no idea there were so many s’s in assassinated). This event led to the outbreak of the First World War, with Britain declaring war on Germany. Canada, being loyal to the King, came in on the side of the British and French, and as a result the name of the town had to be changed. There are many plays on the phrase ‘meeting my Waterloo’ that I won’t go into. I will though make reference to Lydia the Queen of Tattoo and put in a link to a YouTube video with the wonderful Groucho Marx.

Oh Lydia The Queen of Tattoo.
On her back is The Battle of Waterloo.
Beside it The Wreck of the Hesperus too.
And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue.
You can learn a lot from Lydia!

So that is it for the end of March. To people who read the blog, please feel free to pre-order the books I mention above, and perhaps that will help me get my ass into gear and write. I need pushing and so don’t be shy about doing this.


There is a bumper crop of books in this month’s blog. Part of the reason for this is that I, on my previous trip to the United Kingdom, having watched all the films on the way to Amsterdam, spent the return journey reading. There are two non-fiction and two fiction books reviewed below. I have also joined the Waterloo Public Library, which has both an excellent selection of material, and provides a place for some of the more challenged members of this city to hang out.

Angus Deaton, The Great Escape health wealth and the origins of inequality, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013, 360 pages. Apart from being a very interesting read I love the fact that Deaton used bits of the wonderful picture The Last Judgement by Rogier van der Weyden as the front and end pieces in the jacket, and on the cover itself. It is worth taking a look at the whole picture here.

The book provides an account of wealth and health around the world focusing on the current position, but also looking back to see how we got to where we are. The question of data is highlighted. This is critical. I believe there could be more discussion about the lack of data; why it is so poor when it is collected; and why international agencies buy into this appalling mess. As an aside I had naïvely believed in the national statistical year books. In 1984, I read in the Lesotho Annual Statistical Bulletin, that there were 3 234 783 chickens in the country. Really!

The discussion of height as being a marker of good health and, importantly potential, for population may not be original, but Deaton does a great and persuasive job of making this something we need to pay more attention to. It is an intergenerational effect, this means our development efforts may not see positive outcomes for at least another 50 or more years. The idea that “The epidemiological transition is when diseases move out of the bowels and chests of infants into the arteries of the elderly” again may not be new, however so much in the book is bringing together and developing ideas.

The importance of good policies is covered. We have a hard time identifying the benefits of such policies or even convincing ourselves the policy makes a difference. Bad policies can have catastrophic effects: the example given is the Chinese ‘Great leap forward’. An area to explore would be the incremental effects of these over decades.

There are areas of concern. Education is important, but we have a growing number of people who are overeducated and unemployed. I think there has to be a tipping point in education where people get enough to live better and more productive lives, but not too much so that they become unemployed and unemployable but with high aspirations. Does each new mouth bring with it a future worker and the creative brain? In my view people must have an environment in which they can be innovative. In South Africa there are masses of unemployed youth, particularly young men with little prospect. Certainly these youth don’t believe they have a future.

The book has some very citable quotes. “The great escape might not bring permanent freedom but only a temporary reprieve from the evil darkness and disorder that surround us.” “We worry about our children and grandchildren.” “People playing with their own and their clients’ money should get rich is one thing: that they should do so with public money is quite another. If these activities cause widespread social harm the situation is intolerable.” “Powerful and wealthy elites have choked off economic growth before, and they can do so again, if they are allowed to undermine the institutions on which broad based growth depends.”

The Great Escape is like an elegant Spanish omelette, well thought out, prepared and served. Some of the ingredients are surprising. It is a book I will be using in my new incarnation in Canada.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath Underdogs Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Little Brown and company, 2013, New York 305 pages. I have read all of Gladwell’s books except the collection ‘What the dog saw’ and this is because I do not enjoy essays. This book does not disappoint. It is in three parts. Part One: The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantage), Part Two: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty, Part Three: The Limits of Power. The book then has a series of case studies. Gladwell shows how it is possible to win when you least expect to. In the book, he travels from basketball in California to an undergraduate student in Maryland with a side journey to the Impressionist painters of Paris. There is a discussion on dyslexia, losing a father at a young age, the American human rights movement, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the three strikes and you’re out rule in California, and the village of Le Chambon-sur-Ligon in France which protected Jewish refugees. Gladwell is one of the authors that students need to read as, while some of what he says may be questioned, he writes in an accessible and literate style. I wish I could do as well.

Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative, And Other Stories, 2013, London 245 pages. This book was first published in South Africa by Umuzi together with photographs by David Goldblatt. The publisher is really exciting as they rely on subscriptions to bring their books out. For £20 a subscriber gets two books per year, for £50 six books. This story is in three parts told by Neville Lister. We meet him as a university drop out in the early 1980, pick up the story again in the mid-1990s when he returns from exile, and end in 2010 when he is becoming known as a photographer. It is the story of a scrappy and un-planned life lived in the context of the oppression of apartheid in Johannesburg’s edgy society. I recognised many of the people in this book, not by name but by type. It is astutely observed and beautifully written. One minor quibble is that children and young people do not appear in the book, and they certainly were part of the lives lived.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Strange Shores, Harvill Secker London 201, 296 pages. I rarely say anything about the crime novels that I devour. Indriðason is an Icelandic writer who has as his ‘hero’ Detective Erlendur. I considered this author to be a real find and thoroughly enjoyed his early books. There was a theme running through these. The hero’s younger brother, father and he were out hunting for lost sheep in the neighbourhood of their home, when they became separated. The younger boy was never found. In this book it seems as though our hero dies at the end and is reunited with his brother. There is a description of this happening. In the story we learn about two murders; one a young woman whose husband strangles her and hides the body, the second is that her lover ignores the possibility that her husband is still alive after a fishing accident. The man is buried alive and the detective discovers that the coffin has scratch and tooth marks on the inside of the lid as the victim tried desperately to escape. It was bleak and rather scary. I suspect it is the last in the series. This is not dissimilar from the way Henning Mankell ends the Kurt Wallender books, but is quite unsatisfactory for the reader.