Autumn and Spring Showers

The month of April began in the Cape and ended in Canada via Norwich. In the first week we ran the scientific writing course in Stellenbosch in the Cape. There were 19 participants from across Africa. Tim Quinlan did most of the teaching and the event was excellent. We are beginning to see results in submitted and published manuscripts from earlier years. I hope the project will be renewed, but if it is not then we have achieved a great deal. As my travel was from the southern to the northern hemisphere, I experienced autumn one day and spring the next. In England the daffodils have bloomed and are past their best. In Canada, or at least in this part, they have yet to blossom and it is still decidedly chilly.

Of course visiting Cape Town is also a chance to see family. My brother and sister-in-law were away but I caught up with my aunt, various cousins and a niece for Sunday lunch. I felt that I had not talked properly to niece Sarah, and she was good enough to join me for lunch on the Monday before I flew back to the UK. We walked across from the City Lodge to a new restaurant right next door. It was good to have a decent conversation and catch up with family news. Because the flight from Cape Town is so late (after 11 pm), I only watched one film: The Great Buster, a biopic of filmmaker and comedian Buster Keaton. He was one of the few stars who transitioned successfully from silent films to sound. It was not demanding so was good to watch in the small hours.

I had a relatively short spell in England. My sister came up from London for Easter and her birthday. We went to a show at the Norwich Playhouse, where Rowan works. It was an amateur production of A Sound of Music. It was outstanding. There were a few wrong notes, but not many at all. The set was imaginative and the acting most impressive. I think amateur productions can be excellent because people really throw their hearts into the show.

In addition this Gill, Douglas and I went to the beach at Mundesley, stopping at the church where one part of the family were buried in the 1800s (my father’s mother’s family), and then to put flowers on my grandmother’s grave in North Walsham. It is astonishing to think that she died, in childbirth, in 1907. This is where we interred at my father’s ashes; he lived to the ripe old age of 90. It was a reflective visit.

I travelled back to Canada towards the end of April. This involved the usual 6am early morning flight from Norwich to Amsterdam and then a really good connection on to Toronto. It was a quick flight, I think it is a sign of global climate change that there are no longer weather fronts marching across the Atlantic slowing aircraft down with headwinds. The flight was only just over seven hours and I read my book rather than trying to watch a film. I seem to now, automatically, always be seated on the isle in the front row of the economy class. This is one of the advantages of the frequent flyer card I hold. Flights are still no fun in economy class, even if it is ‘premium’ economy. Having a card that gives lounge access makes a huge difference to the travel experience.

During my second week in Waterloo there were two events that I want to mark in this monthly posting. The first was my favourite restaurant, Red House, had a gastronomic evening where five wines were paired with five dishes. The event began with Lake Erie perch; continued with a cheese tart; Cornish hen; and lamb belly. The desert was a white chocolate soup with lobster. This last one sounds extraordinarily unlikely, at least the lobster part, but it was actually surprisingly tasty. As one would expect, with professionals, the wines were excellent. There was one from Oregon in the United States, two from Ontario, and two from Stellenbosch. That was so pleasing. I was able to talk to the Sommelier and discovered that the vineyard were indeed from close to where we ran the training.

Because I had drunk a fair amount on the 29th I made a sensible decision for the event on 30 April. I did not drive, but took a taxi. It was expensive, however I felt much more comfortable. I had been invited to the Guelph Wellington Men’s Club. It has over 300 members and meets weekly in the town of Guelph. I can’t do this remarkable organization justice in this letter, so I would urge people to look at their website. What is so interesting is that it is far more than a social group.

I was absolutely stunned by the event. The meeting began with various housekeeping notices. When these were done everyone joined in singing the national anthem “Oh Canada”. This was sung both with vigour, and in tune. I was impressed. To be standing in a room with only men present was quite a shock in Canada. I think I may have been the youngest person present, the average age is probably 75 and the oldest was 99. They are all professional and extremely engaged. It is a brilliant example of building social capital. I do reflect that this probably would not work if it was ‘coeducational’, indeed one of the speakers told a joke that I would never attempt.

I was told that they really enjoyed my presentation, there was nothing new in it, but I found the audience to be invigorating and engaged. One of the hosts warned at the start that I would probably see the people seated at one particular table struggling to stay awake; there was no sign of that. I think I was able to inform and entertain. Hopefully this is one group of people who now have a better understanding of the AIDS epidemic in southern Africa.

In the past I noticed, in April, there is a large sale of second-hand books in one of the churches in Waterloo. This year I finally managed to get to it. The event is held over two days and there were thousands upon thousands of books in numerous rooms. I went home with over 60 books. Included in the haul were two atlases, one current and the second of world history. I don’t think I will need to go to the library for a very long time, although I will probably continue to order certain new books. The sale is organised and managed by a team of volunteers.

This brings me to one of the points that I have been made aware of in the last week. It is not surprising that the men’s club is made up of older members; that is who it is targeted at. The staff of the book sale also tended to be rather elderly. Both it seems are having difficulty in attracting younger participants and volunteers. I wonder if that is a general sea change in behaviour. If that is the case it should give us all cause for concern, we do need engagement.

This is a year of elections. South Africa goes to the polls early in May and Canada later in the year. I have been reading the political commentary, it is so easy to do this now online. The ANC are certain to win the national election in South Africa but they may not hold all the provinces. I do hope that we see the rise of a credible opposition, and of course, from a selfish point of view one that I can vote for. Canada will face a toxic spill over from the United States, but I do think it is a sound liberal democracy.

Of course the big question remains Brexit. This fiasco has illustrated just how broken the British political system is. The only party that has been consistent in its message is the Liberal Democrats. I have been a Lib Dem, in my mind at least, since university. It is troubling that the party was so badly punished by the coalition they entered with the Conservatives in 2010. To be honest I think it was deserved, the question is how to move beyond this and deal with the huge issues that the United Kingdom and the world faces. Well, that brings me to the end of my April letter.