Older and wiser?

Older and wiser?

I realised as I prepared this posting that some of it is old news, given the speed with which things get passed round on Facebook. Never mind – here is the first report for 2015 and I want it on my webpage anyway. On 22 November, while I was in Canada, in Toronto to be exact, a letter arrived at 1 Brabazon Road in Norwich. Ailsa opened it and phoned me to share the contents. I am very glad she did. I took the call walking down Yonge Street, the station to get the train to Waterloo. This is not a salubrious part of town, but it is where the second hand bookshops are located.

The first paragraph she read said: “The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has asked me to inform you that he proposes to submit your name to HM the Queen so that Her Majesty may graciously approve your appointment as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the forthcoming New Year 2015 Honours list”. It went on to say the citation would be: “former Executive Director, Health Economics and HIV AIDS Research Division, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. For services and strategic interventions to curb HIV AIDS”. I have put the scanned copy of the announcement in my web picture gallery.

New Years Honours List

New Years Honours List

The letter requested I return the form within three working days to say if I would accept the honour. Douglas scanned the form, and the letter, and e-mailed them to me. I got everything back immediately. I am so delighted by this at many levels. It is a great compliment, and more than this, it is recognition of what was often, a rather lonely business, and it celebrates the uniqueness of the HEARD project.

There are many people without whom this work would not have happened. In Durban, Samantha Willan the first Operations Director at HEARD and who shared my vision; Tim Quinlan who joined as Research Director in 2001 and really is an excellent academic and humanitarian; Samuel Gormley and Kay Govender who hold the positions, and of course Nana Poku, current HEARD Director for the many acts of kindness, support, and professional help. In the UK, I would like to acknowledge the folk at DFID especially, Sue Kinn and Malcolm McNeil; Tony Barnett of the LSHTM and my friends at the RUSH Foundation.

That is enough of the serious business. This blog was begun on the plane on the way back to Canada on the 31st December 2014, the day the announcement was published. My year ended on a high note at Norwich Airport, when the family came to the café there, had a cup of coffee and bought the paper to check my entry on the freshly minted Honours lists. It is symbolic of my life that this was done at an airport as, true to form I had to catch a plane, leaving the family behind once more to go to Amsterdam and then on to Toronto. Sensibly, we live five minutes down the road.

The warm/rosy glow followed me when I was upgraded on the KLM flight to Toronto. There is a wonderful sound, recognised by seasoned travellers, when the boarding card is scanned at the gate. Instead of the standard beep of confirmation from the scanner, there is bong of ‘wait this needs attention’, and usually it is an upgrade. I believe Ailsa, may have encouraged KLM to reward me, valued frequent flyer that I aspire to be! This meant a chance to watch a film; enjoy decent wine and food; sleep a little and write my posting.

I had a break over Christmas. To my amazement the email traffic died down to a trickle and so there was time to do other things and think about stuff. The gym in the hotel up the road is small and friendly. It is not corporate, as was evidenced by the fact that I was able to negotiate a rate for the year based on my tax returns. The way it worked was, I said to Katie, the manager, I would only be in the UK for a limited number of days and asked for pro-rata membership. I know exactly how many days I am in the UK, Canada and South Africa because it is important for tax purposes. To my eternal regret I miscalculated in 2014. Still that is another story. It basically means I sit down and work through my diary to see where I was every midnight in the year.

My first day of teaching is 5th January and this will keep me very busy for the first three months in Waterloo. I have prepared course outlines and the task now is to deliver. This is actually all exciting and I am really looking forward to it. One of the main attractions of the post is to teach the next generation of researchers, academics, civil servants and activists. The students in Waterloo are all keen and, while lacking in exposure to the wide world, have undoubted potential. It is going to be stimulating and fun. There is much writing to be fitted in: deadlines are looming.

I had an enjoyable side trip in December. I have a friend, from many years ago, who lives near Cambridge. Peter McDermott currently works for the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation in London. I first met him when he was with UNICEF. We arranged to meet in Cambridge (UK), for lunch, and I took the train down from Norwich. A brief digression – why do we say ‘down’? I suppose because it is to the south on the map, but we also say down to London. As I write this it makes sense because people on Brighton or the West Country talk about going ‘up’ to London. On the way back I went to the information kiosk to get a timetable for the trains back to Norwich. The chap behind the counter said. “Oh yes you want the rural timetable. I remarked, slightly offended, “I am not sure we Norwich people see ourselves as rural”.

It was an enjoyable journey, only an hour and twenty minutes. We went to a sparsely patronised Turkish restaurant where the waiters and kitchen staff outnumbered the customers. I suspect to stave off boredom they duelled in the aisles with the shish kebab skewers. The food was good and the conversation very helpful. There is a cohort of friends, whose children are leaving home for university or their first jobs. It is supportive to compare notes and learn there is no longer a ‘normal’.

There was a (by English standards) cold snap before I left. The temperature dropped to -5ᵒC one night. The Norwich house has two wood burning stoves. When I am there I generally make the fire. It is quite alarming how quickly the wood gets consumed. At the moment it is all from the garden, various shrubs trimmings, and branches and trees that have been cut down over the years. It is clear that it is not sustainable and if we burned the fire all the time we would need to buy in wood or coal.

Among the relaxing activities were a number of walks in the Norfolk countryside. There was little rain so this was quite possible. We went out for a few evenings including one with friend to a local hotel restaurant, this will remain unnamed. The manager was effusively friendly when we went in, too friendly I thought, but I am known for being a little curmudgeonly. As the evening went on it became apparent he had too much to drink and this got steadily worse. He was ‘helping’ with the service and as we stood at the bar we watched him take two loaded plates and tack his way unsteadily across the floor!

Clearly this is a time of year for people to let their hair down. In the changing room at the gym I became aware of a very talkative fellow (regional accent), who was telling his life story; calling everyone mate; and having difficulty finding his feet to put his socks on! He shared with us that his life had ‘been what it was’, not great. He told the people there ‘he had a problem with alcohol and it was his own fault’. Such confidences are out of place when one does not know people and certainly when one is changing. So this is the first posting of 2015 – I hope you have a great New Year.


Life Of Crime, was the only one I was tempted by on the flight. It stars, among others, Jennifer Aniston. I was tempted by the fact it was based on an Elmore Leonard book ‘The Switch’. The story is that two criminals kidnap the wife of a property tycoon. He decides not to pay… and it goes from there. It was not mind stretching but was fun.

7 thoughts on “Older and wiser?

  1. Love personal stories, and when it comes from a recently recognised OBE – wow! I bow before you ….

    Thanks for keeping me on your list, Alan, and please just keep these stories coming….


  2. Thank you Alan for continuing to fly the flag of HEARD at UKZN high. We are very proud of you and all that you continue to achieve abroad. Being honoured by HM the Queen is remarkable and a testimony of your significant contribution to the understanding and management of HIV/AIDS. All the best, MaryAnn (UKZN College of Health Sciences)


  3. Dear Alan
    You never cease to amaze me,!!!!!!!
    Your humility being the greatest thing that inspires me…
    Thank you for being an example to us all of true service…
    Hope you and your family are well…
    Lots of love….


  4. Alan, great to hear you are thriving still and congratulations to the boy from Swaziland for your recognition by the Queen. We are extremely busy on the Mozambique border in what started as a Learners Shelter for Orphans and has now transformed into a multi million ‘infrastructure’ monster with no orphans in sight! Rodney Harber


Comments are closed.