February in England was mild and dry, in my view clear evidence of environmental change. It is five minutes to midnight on the Doomsday clock. It is not surprising the birds and insects are reacting to this warm spell (between 5 and 10°C above seasonal averages). There was a robin singing its little heart out, on a tree with bare branches, yesterday evening. Robins are not shy, but it was unique to see this bird so clearly silhouetted against the very blue sky. We are not taking the urgent and dramatic actions needed to address what we are doing to our natural world. I fluctuate between optimism and despair.
It was an interesting month from the productivity point of view. I managed to complete and submit two pieces of work: an article and a book chapter. More importantly I did something long overdue that will, hopefully, improve my efficiency. Sometimes as I write I think to myself ‘I have said this before, but where?’ Over a morning I made a list of everything I had published, or drafted, since the beginning of 2016. This included the table of contents, a list of figures, tables and maps, and an abstract. My memory may be bad, but at least now I know where to look. I also listed ideas I have had and not properly developed, these could be revisited and turned into articles.
The month began with a visit to the Robert Bosch United World College in Freiburg in southern Germany. The founding headmaster of the college was the head at Waterford for many years. Indeed, I was the first governor to interview him in 1998. This was at a time when we were desperately looking for a new head. What had happened is we had appointed a man who turned out to be a disaster and who, fortunately, served only one contract. He was probably a good educationalist, but he did not have a grasp of finances. Because the reporting was not adequate, by the time the Governing Council realised what was going on, the school was deep in the red. We were lucky to get a couple from the UK to come and act in the Principal’s role while we went head hunting. Then we were lucky to get Laurence!
Laurence Nodder and his wife Debbie took up the position in 1998 and stayed for close to 15 years. He was then invited to establish the new United World College in Freiburg. That meant supervising building work, some new and some conversions of existing buildings, as well as recruiting staff and students. This was challenging, even in efficient Germany. As I saw walking around the college, they have done a remarkable job. I felt very lucky that Laurence invited me to come and give a public lecture to the school and community.
I flew into Basel airport on the Monday evening and returned to Norwich on Thursday. This airport is the nearest to Freiburg and confusingly, for me at any rate, serves parts of Germany, Switzerland and France, although it is actually located in France. Or perhaps that is mainly in France, it was dark and the borders are minimal, so I am really not sure. I know we drove over the border a number of times.
I am increasingly aware of my carbon footprint and so suggested the college make the best possible use of my visit and offer me to the University for a lecture. This worked out very well. I taught the MA class in Global Health (21 students, only one of whom was German) on the Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday I taught two economics groups at the college – basically the same lecture to both, and then gave the public lecture in the early evening. The hall is one of the new buildings and is impressive. To be honest the whole establishment is amazing, and it must be a joy to live and study there. The hall is in the style of an amphitheater where the audience sits on the steps. It has excellent acoustics, a real contrast to the Waterford hall where, soon after the building was complete (and opened by the King) in 1968, empty cardboard egg boxes were attached to the walls in an attempt to improve the sound.
Laurence was good enough to meet me at the airport, and I stayed on the top floor of their wonderful old house. It was an inspiring visit and mixing with students in their late teens at the college and in their twenties at the University was a real treat. No matter how gloomy we may feel, these young people have their lives ahead of them and are determined to lead them in as full a way as possible. Of course this makes perfect sense, how could they not!
Equally, it is important for the students in these educational establishments to recognise how privileged they are. This was a point I emphasised at the beginning of the lectures. They can learn in secure environments and among people who have their best interests at heart. There is a global mental health crisis which manifests itself, in these settings, as anxiety and depression. This makes me think the issue is not just helicopter parents, but a helicopter generation. A quote that fits is:
“Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement”.
But how do we allow people, especially the youth, to have bad experiences without intervening? How do people realise there is no entitlement? This are big issues that I am increasingly pondering. My upbringing was so very different. I do not want to turn the clock back, but rather learn from the past.
On the last weekend of the month Douglas went with friends for a stag weekend in Budapest (a friend’s stag, not his), leaving in the small hours on Friday and getting back on Monday. He had a good trip and would like to go back, this time to absorb some of the culture. The next day, on Saturday, Rowan and Ben headed off, again in the early hours, to spend a week on Antigua with Ben’s family. The spell in the sun will do them good. The result of the coming and goings are that we are on cat sitting duty. This means someone must sleep over at Rowan’s house and feed the animal. It is disruptive but, in all honesty, a very minor inconvenience. The cat is being fostered, in theory, until a home is found. He was rescued from the streets, and I suspect the chances of him being rehoused are not high as he only has one eye. He is however a very pleasant cat with a deep resonant purr.
I had reason to be sitting, waiting, in the car in one of the less well-off areas of Norwich while dinner was dropped off at an older diabetic friend’s house. It was a mild evening. An elderly gentleman from a house across the road stood and studied me for a while before coming over to ask, politely, what I was doing. It does not take much to get people to talk about their favourite subject – themselves. In five minutes, I heard about his life, neighbours and was shown the large, incipient ulcer on his leg – yes diabetes again. The recent papers I have written include discussions of the changing global burden of disease. In the developed countries, for the young it is primarily mental issues; among the elderly it is non-communicable diseases. These are called the diseases of affluence, but this is not entirely correct as they hit the poor in affluent societies – are they then diseases of aspiration? Of living too long?
It is unusual for me to review a film I have not seen; this month will be an exception. The film is Can You Ever Forgive Me? One of the stars is Richard E Grant who was nominated for the best supporting actor Oscar, although sadly he did not win. This is significant because I knew him in Swaziland. He is a year younger than me and went to Waterford. It has been such a pleasure to read of his success. I wrote him a note to congratulate him, not putting in a return address. He tracked me down through a mutual friend and emailed me to acknowledge it. I was impressed. We have also seen Bohemian Rhapsody which was great. Finally Ailsa and I went to the Norwich Playhouse to listen to Bojangles, a sort of string quartet. As their website says ‘Singing, dancing, comedy, cabaret, variety, theatrical string quartet. It’s REALLY DIFFICULT to describe what we do!’ They were amazing. The energy they put into it was outstanding. I hope they flourish and their music is not seen as niche.