In my last post I wrote about how little rain there had been in Norwich. Thank heavens the drought has broken. Over the month we had periods of decent rain. This was perfect, it thoroughly soaked the ground and filled the water butts. It was as though every plant in the garden heaved a collective sigh of relief and reached their leaves heavenward. In the dog days of summer they are doing their best to make up for lost time and get as much growing, flowering and pleasure in before the cooler nights begin. Trees are no longer shedding leaves because of lack of water, heat and stress. Along the highways and byways of Norfolk gardeners are selling excess produce on tables and little huts. It is an honour system whereby one stops, selects what one wants, and leaves money. We are at the beginning of Autumn, as described by Keats in his 1819 poem; the first stanza is below.
Ode to Autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
I had reason to go, separately, to Cambridge and London in August. The Cambridge trip was because Ailsa’s sister and niece were visiting. Douglas and I spent a day out with them (I was meeting a friend for dinner, so I had more reason to travel). The fast train from Norwich only takes an hour and twenty minutes, far less than driving, especially with the parking issue. With the ‘senior’ railcard it is not expensive. The use of the railways is encouraged by various concessions – a ‘young person’s’ card for those aged 16 to 25; seniors’ cards for people over 60; and family cards.
We had lunch in the plaza outside the station. My word that part of the town has changed, it is now welcoming! There is a large open square, with a range of restaurants, all seemed good. We choose one, sat outside, and soaked up the sun. After this, in the interests of time, we took a taxi into town. There must have been 40 taxis on the rank, and there were not many passengers. It is, our Turkish driver confirmed, a hard way to make a living outside term and in summer.
Entry into The Fitzwilliam Museum is free and it is outstanding. I must admit to not being thrilled by the coins and weaponry, but the paintings were magnificent. The gallery had a great deal of work on display; we spent most of our time looking at continental artists from the 15th and 16th centuries. I liked the two Bruegels, father and son, their eye for detail is exceptional. The one painting was of the village fair, jollity in most of it and a man being sick in the bottom right corner. There was one cabinet dedicated the end of the First World War. This is appropriate as we are fast approaching that centenary. It contained mainly medal ribbons and commemorative medals stuck by both the victors and the vanquished. With the hindsight of a century it seems pretty clear to me this was the worst of all the wars and conflict humankind has seen. The sheer brutality on an industrial scale and the lack of leadership is hard to comprehend.
The trip to London was to attend the farewell function for a Department for International Development staff member. He was part of the team I worked with during my spell as a Senior Research Fellow with the Ministry and was key on the administrative side. The invitation said something like: ‘Join us to say goodbye to XXXX who has worked here for 48 years and nine months’. What an amazingly long spell to be in employment in one place, although he will have seen many changes over the years (and at least four office buildings). The first part was in the Department; outsiders were escorted to a conference room and the staff in the Glasgow joined on the video conference link. We then adjourned to a pub across the road for a meal. It was great to see so many people with whom I had worked, albeit for only just over three years.
There are relatively few advantages to aging, the senior card meant my first class, day return, booked in advance on specific trains, ticket cost just £21. An added bonus is a free cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit from the buffet. There is also plenty of space and, on the way back, I was able to finish reading my Sunday paper, The Observer, and The Enchanted, a book Rowan recommended.
I was very amused on the tube. I was sitting observing my fellow passengers. There was a woman in her late 20s sitting on her own. Two men of about her age got on. One sat next to me while the other went and engaged her in conversation. I could overhear some of it, and he was simply chatting in a flirty way. I was prepared to intervene if she was uncomfortable, but he soon had her laughing and responding. The men got off at the same station as I did. I walked behind them as the chat-up ‘artist’ asked his friend how he had done, and they did a quick post-mortem of the encounter. Given there was no attempt to prolong the encounter, or even, as far as I could see, exchange numbers, was it acceptable behaviour?
In addition to a small amount of travel we took day trips to the beach with various visiting family members (and one with a visiting dog). Mundsley remains my favourite spot because there is ample room to walk and the Beach Café does excellent and basic cheap food. We went to Sheringham on an extremely busy day and ended up at a pub. This had live music outside, a group of elderly North Norfolk men playing country tunes, and unexceptional meals. The best meal though was at a pub in Norwich. The Eagle is across the city from us and advertises as dog friendly. It is no longer possible to smoke in pubs, but a few still welcome dogs and this is one. Their food is great, the service excellent, and the prices reasonable.
As we come to the end of August so the northern hemisphere gears up for the new educational year. It is quite a contrast with experience in Eswatini (Swaziland) and South Africa where the new school and university year coincide with the calendar year. Does this make any difference to the way people behave and think? Of course New Year’s resolutions can’t be retroactive. Both Rowan and Douglas went up to Edinburgh to attend the famous festival. Rowan was there on the ‘company dime’ and looking for productions they could bring to Norwich. Douglas was there to have fun and, hopefully, be inspired in his comedy writing, since this is something he is increasingly good at.
In a few days I head to Cape Town for a course on scientific writing. Ideally this training will lead to papers being submitted to journals where I am an editor, but in fact our measure of success is simply papers written and submitted to any decent scientific journals. Statistics show authorship dominated by western academics and this is something we need to change. Some question publication as a metric for success. I think it is critical, it should mean work is peer reviewed and judged to be worthy of publication. Once this has been done the authors have the ability to promote and disseminate it.
Books and Films
The Children Act. This film is based on Ian McEwan’s book, and he wrote the screen play. A 17 year and nine month old boy has leukaemia. Because he and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses the parents (and he) refuse a life-saving blood transfusion. As he is under 18 the hospital asks the court to intervene and force the family to accept the blood that will save his life. The key character is the judge who rules for the transfusion after visiting the boy in hospital. A brilliant film.
Rene Denfeld, The Enchanted, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2014, 233 pages. This was recommended by Rowan and I nearly did not read it because of the subject matter. It is mainly set in the condemned prisoners’ wing in an American jail, and told primarily from the perspective of a prisoner waiting for his execution. The story ends with him being put to death, but it is the process of getting there and the observations on this that make up the book. The story is gripping, the end inevitable and tragic; the whole thing a sheering indictment on poverty, inequality and inhumanity in the USA.
Seema Yasmin, The Impatient Dr Lange, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018 186 pp. In 2014 Joep Lange was on the MH17 on his way to the International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Melbourne, Australia when it was shot down over Ukraine. This biography is written by medical doctor and journalist Seema Yasmin is a powerful story tracing Joep’s life from his birth in 1954 to 2014. It is the tail of a brilliant and impatient virologist working primarily in the field of HIV and AIDS. He was not content to see patients and work in a laboratory so Joep engaged with politicians, policy makers and drug companies to provide more. His path breaking partnership with Heineken, Shell and other companies enabled their employees and families to receive treatment. In 2000 he was the President elect of the International AIDS Society. In 2002 he handed on the post to Helene Gayle and served on the Governing Council as immediate past president for a further two years. I served as a member of the GC from 2000 to 2008 and then was treasurer from 2008 to 2012 so got to know him reasonably well. This is an accurate, well written story of a driven man in extraordinary times. Joep was not an easy man to work with. Not suffering fools gladly is a good characteristic, but not taking time to understand other’s points of views is not. It is, perhaps, inevitable that the economist and doctor clashed. Resources are always finite and choices need to be made as to where we spend money. Loosing Joep was a tragedy for our field and I am sorry we did not finish our debate.
David France, How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS, Picador 2017, Pan Macmillan, London 624 pp. This is a big book for a big topic. It chronicles the story of the AIDS epidemic from the earliest days up to the discovery of effective treatment in 1996. It compliments and updates Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On which covered the story from inception to 1987. Shilts died of AIDS in 1994. The science is well explained and France has insights into activism and the gay communities’ politics which are considered and interesting to read. It is, though, the story from the perspective of East Coast American gay man, and as such is limited. Strikingly Joep Lange does not get a mention in the book, although the discovers of the virus Luc Montagnier and François Barré-Sinoussi and their spat with American Robert Gallo does. This is symptomatic of the gaping divide that existed and still exists between the US and European scientists. This is book worth reading but it takes time and concentration. Of course both this and Yasmin’s books tell stories of times I lived through and people I knew. I am therefore more critical but also more inclined to read them.