There are many places in Ontario named after English towns. Not far from Waterloo, there is a Norwich and down the road, the small town of Stratford hosts, perhaps predictably, an excellent Shakespeare festival. The other day I told a colleague I needed to leave the meeting we were at: I was travelling to London.

“Oh”, she responded, “So am I”.

The difference was she had to drive for an hour while my journey was to Pearson Airport, Amsterdam, and a connection to Heathrow.

It was a straightforward trip despite strong winds across the region. The forecast spoke gusts of up to 90kph! The connection time in Amsterdam was minimal, only 50 minutes, yet both I and, to my amazement, my suitcase made it. I was also lucky enough to have three seats to myself on the transatlantic flight so slept. This still required a degree of contortion and willingness to look stupid. Fortunately lots of yoga has assisted in the former and I have never had a problem with the latter.

The day I left, I had been invited to speak at a conference of Canadian University Research Administrators. This was held in the Waterloo Inn, amazingly still the only venue in town able to hold over 100 delegates. We had thought the new Delta hotel across the road from the Balsillie School would have conference space, but it turns out it does not. The last conference I was aware of at the Waterloo Inn was one on porta-loos. This included an exhibition but no samples or trials!

I spoke on my experiences in Southern Africa – how HEARD was established and what I had learnt from this. It seemed to go down well, but more importantly it was an opportunity for me to reflect on Durban and the issues we faced. There is no doubt the establishment of HEARD and the work on HIV and AIDS were deeply rewarding, although I do wish there had not been such a rampant epidemic to contend with! One of the research areas that I should like to take up is to understand what impact the disease wrought on our societies in Southern Africa in terms of politics, economics, culture and psychology, although much of this is counterfactual and unquantifiable!

Just before I left Canada in November, we had the first snow in Waterloo, and it got very cold indeed. It then warmed up and most of the snow melted. In the UK, it was not cold, but was damp and very dreary. The clouds hung low and oozed just enough moisture to dampen the hair and spirits! This is particularly annoying for people like me who have lost their tresses, but have not managed to remember to carry a hat. When I got back it was 16 centigrade! Absurd!

The meeting I was in the UK for was organized by the RUSH Foundation. I have been working with them for some years now and am hugely impressed by their activities and innovation. Their ‘strapline’ is ‘Funding Disruptive Ideas against HIV’ and this meeting was called ‘HIV/AIDS: New Thinking for a Ticking Time Bomb’.

It was an extremely useful meeting as a number of papers that form part of a larger project were presented. The first, by Paul Collier and his team from Oxford University, looked at the long-term duty of rescue ethics in HIV interventions. I undoubtedly learned most from this paper; ideas of utilitarianism and so on were put forward. Is there a duty to provide prevention and treatment for AIDS? The argument is that there is both a moral and an economic duty. I have been encouraging institutions to take action for years. There were also papers from a team at Imperial College, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

We had two formal dinners: one at St. Anne’s College, originally for women only, and one held in a more modern Oxford college. The meeting was held in Rhodes House, where we were surrounded by portraits of predictably pale men. It is interesting to note that the establishment is now marketing itself as a space for weddings and other events.

The Official Picture: 'HIV/AIDS: New Thinking for a Ticking Time Bomb', Oxford, 26th November 2014

The Official Picture: ‘HIV/AIDS: New Thinking for a Ticking Time Bomb’, Oxford, 26th November 2014. Image is © Copyright John Cairns, used with kind permission.

The meeting was hosted by the Blavatnik School of Government at the University. It confirmed again that the world we live in is rather small. The Dean of the School is Ngaire Woods who is also on the board of CIGI in Canada. They are running a large Masters in Public Policy program and it seems to me that there would be merit in talking across the Atlantic. The logistics for the whole event went incredibly smoothly, we had taxis to take us to the dinners and meeting room. It was a bit embarrassing though to realize that it was only a few hundred meters between the venues, and could have been an easy walk. But it was raining!

Apart from the excellent and very interesting papers the gathering was high level and well-informed. The RUSH Foundation was able to invite and bring the former presidents of South Africa and Botswana: Kgalema Motlanthe and Festus Mogae. Both attended the entire meeting and made insightful and helpful comments. I really felt for President Mogae: he was in office as the epidemic spread across the country. One of the successes, in terms of treatment, was initiated by his government though. I have posted the official photograph from the meeting on the website. They are in the front row.

The journey from Oxford to Norwich involves going via London. Fortunately, there are frequent trains from Oxford to Paddington, and then one has to take the tube to Liverpool Street and a train to Norwich. I was lucky because all my connections worked well. When I went to buy my ticket, I asked how much it would be to travel first class, and was told it cost only an extra £10 pounds for a return ticket. In addition to a more comfortable seat, the company gives you a free cup of tea, packet of biscuits and wireless access. Altogether this must come close to the additional cost of a first class fare.

I had just two full days in Norwich before flying back to Canada. I am back in the UK from the 10th December for a board meeting in London and then the Christmas break. I start teaching in Waterloo on 4th January for 12 weeks; this is when I have my first formal contact with the M.A. students. It is still a source of frustration to me that I have not been able to recruit PhD students.

The last two months have been very productive in the sense of getting down to and writing some articles. There is a great deal of interest in the lessons that can be learnt from AIDS for the Ebola epidemic and I have been reading up on this. I coined a phrase: “Ebola is AIDS on steroids”. This seems to hold because Ebola is so much more infectious, takes a short time to manifest itself, and has an exceptionally high mortality rate. It has taken off in places where the public health systems are non-existent or failing. It is though entirely controllable. The next step in academic work on Ebola should be around the economic social and political impact that it has had. I suspect it has turned back the development clock in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.

I have also written a couple of blogs and managed to get an op-ed placed in the paper in Waterloo. This is all grist to the mill but the big task of the two books looms over me, a literary sword of Damocles. Soon! Although that is what I keep telling myself! Watch this space for progress reports.