“January brings the snow: makes your feet and fingers glow”

(Title: Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather’)

The first half of January was exceptionally warm for winter. We are told not to ‘cherry pick’ weather events to argue global warming is real. When they come one after the other, however, the evidence seems to be stacking up. The weather maps showed high pressure over the UK and to the south, so the fronts seem to be further north than usual. Scotland got a battering. Sadly the potential advent of Scottish independence won’t help that situation – weather is bigger than politics.

The rest of the month saw a few hard frosts, grey days and wind and rain, as well as some gloriously sunny spells. Even in the depths of winter the sun shining through the window can be warm enough to warm the south facing rooms. We have wood / coal burning stoves in the living areas and I must admit to getting a great deal of pleasure in laying and lighting the fire: paper, kindling larger pieces of wood and the coal. If I do it right we use 10 kg of coal for four fires. It warms both the room and the house very nicely.

If January weather was not enough to keep us depressed, the all-consuming topic in the UK is Brexit. Theresa May presented her deal to Parliament in mid-January, and it was soundly defeated. In fact the margin was astonishing: MPs voted by 432 votes to 202 to reject the deal. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately tabled a vote of no confidence, which, unsurprisingly was not passed. If it had been it would have led to a general election.

The problem is both the Conservative and Labour parties are both deeply divided on leaving the EU and the deal, so there is no consensus. An election would not help, unless the smaller parties did really well, which is unlikely. It is all a terrible mess. There have been, in past few days, more votes in Parliament and the situation is even more uncertain at the end of January.

The papers, or at least the ones I read, are full of commentary on the rise of the right in global politics. This is clearly happening, but just as worrying is the growth of incompetence in leadership. The events of the past few months in the USA seem to epitomise this. When this is combined with the lack of vision I worry even more.

“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

I knew the quote and I was writing this letter I decided to see where it was from. The answer is James Freeman Clarke (April 4, 1810 – June 8, 1888) an American theologian and author. There do not seem to be any great works by him but lots of very good quotes.

This letter needs to cover two other disturbing pieces of news before I move on to other items. There was a terrorist attack in Nairobi in mid-January. I was shocked to see, on the BBC website, a picture of one of the people who worked with HEARD eight or so years ago. Luke Potter was with the charity the Gatsby Charitable Foundation established by David Sainsbury in 1967. He worked with us on a community project in the Amajuba District in KwaZulu-Natal. He was smart and hard working. His family will be devastated.

When I opened my email on the last Sunday of the month there was a message to say the youngest son of a friend was killed in a home invasion in Johannesburg. The rest of the family were present. Words fail me. This brutality and criminality is totally unacceptable. It is not the South Africa anyone wants to live in. While I see the change of leadership as positive after the veniality and corruption of the last ten years (accession of Ramaphosa and departure of Zuma), news like this it is hard.

All my travel in January was from Norwich to London. It is after all only two hours away by train. National Rail offers discounts for ‘seniors’, and this, combined with advance purchase tickets, means it is not very expensive. The only slight thing to watch for is that there are restrictions on these tickets. Heaven help the passenger who is on the wrong train: they have to buy a new ticket. I made several trips down purely for pleasure, going down just for lunch.

The first was to meet a school friend for lunch, someone I have known for at least 50 years, and perhaps even longer. He hosted me at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, a very fashionable address. It was good to catch up. I have no idea of the prices though; the club has the quaint habit of giving the menu with the prices to the host. I almost spent more time on the train than I did in London, but it was great to have a chance to catch up.

London clubs unique. I was a member of the Royal Commonwealth Society on Northumberland Avenue, but declining membership means it gradually decreased activities and finally closed. It meant I lost my London pied-à-terre. Originally it had bedrooms, meeting rooms, a fine library, and an excellent dining room. At the end the bedrooms were gone and there was just the dining area and meeting rooms.

The second trip was more family orientated. Ailsa and I went to have lunch with my sister Gill, half-sister Pat and her husband David. Pat and David are in their 80s but amazingly fit and capable. They live in Kent so we take the train down to London and they take it up. The idea of going ‘up and down’ to London is complex and I am not sure I understand it. I think it is partly based on compass: up is north and south is down. Gill lives in London so travels by bus or tube!

We met at a pleasant reasonably priced restaurant, L’ulivo, just off the Embankment and right next to Charing Cross station. As this is where the Kent family travel to, it is most convenient. To my surprise Gill had managed to get two of my nieces to join us. They grew up in Cape Town, but did their degrees in the UK. One is living in London and the other in Manchester. It had been a long time since we last saw them so that was pleasant. The food was good, the problem is the restaurant was busy and noisy. Ailsa and I then walked almost all the way back to Liverpool Street Station a good hour and a half of walking – and we found Dr Johnson’s house off Fleet Street.

There are quite a number of films that have been recently released that I am keen to see – not waiting until I am on an international flight. The first one was Stan and Ollie, the story of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy touring the UK to play in theatres around 1954. This was a fairly desperate move on their part, driven to earn money. The film and the depiction of the characters (including their wives) was absolutely excellent. Douglas and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I had a read a favourable review in the Observer and it was spot on. I missed Bohemian Rhapsody when it was on general release, we were still able to see it though. It is the story of Freddie Mercury of Queen. We all found it moving. He died in 1991, just five years before treatment for AIDS became available.

On the topic of films the Oscar nomination list was released and I was delighted to see Richard E Grant on the list for best supporting actor in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me? He attended Waterford Kamhlaba, and was someone I knew there and more generally in Swaziland, albeit not very well. It is very pleasing to see the advertisements for the film with him and the leading lady, Melissa McCarthy on the walls of the underground stations and in the newspapers.