The Misty Murky Mornings

I had not been in Waterloo for long when I was at a meeting on a very foggy day. I looked out of the window and declaimed:

“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”

This is from John Keats’ poem To Autumn, published in 1820. Everyone looked at me blankly. Doesn’t everyone know the romantic poets? Evidently not! My mind is a bin of snatches of poems and quotes. I can’t always quote them entirely accurately, but I do generally have something appropriate.

There is so much going on around the world that it is hard to know where to start. Britain remains on the edge of a cliff as the Brexit process continues to falter and stutter. So far Theresa May lost three crucial votes and was replaced by Boris Johnson. At the weekend, on 19th September, in an exceptional Saturday sitting, he lost the first vote seeking approval for his ‘deal’. I am not sure that anyone knows what is going to happen. I hoped that by the time I posted my monthly blog, things might be clearer. This does not seem to be the case, and the only credible way forward is to take the decision back to the country, either in a general election or a second referendum.

My sources of information are BBC World News and the occasional dip into the Canadian Broadcasting Service. Canada had an election for the Federal Government on the 21st September. The main parties were the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, the governing party going into the election; the Conservatives, led by Andrew Sheer, an oleaginous individual; the New Democrat Party (NDP), whose leader is a Sikh complete with turban (which he could not wear as a public servant in secular Quebec); and the Greens, lead by a faintly desperate looking woman. There is also Bloc Québécois (BQ) which advocates for Quebec nationalism and sovereignty. They are not a force outside Quebec. Interestingly, like the DUP in the British Parliament, they had 10 seats before the vote, but 34 after the polls closed. Finally there is the small The People’s Party of Canada, a splinter group similar to The Brexit Party in the UK.

I watched the results come in. The process was amazing as the CBC had excellent hi-tech coverage down to individual polling stations. This meant they were able to call results before all the constituency polls had been counted – although they did warn that these were preliminary tallies. The final outcome was 157 seats for the Liberals, 121 for the Conservatives, 32 for the Bloc, 24 for the NDP, three for the Greens and one Independent. Ironically the Conservatives got the most votes at 34.4%; Liberals’ at 33.1%; The New Democrats took 15.9% of the vote, followed by the Bloc at 7.7%, the Greens at 6.5% and the People’s Party at 1.6%. Of course there are more tiny parties, but none should be taken very seriously. It is clear that there will be a minority or coalition government. No bad thing in my opinion. Equally the green vote did not translate into seats!

Around the world from Lebanon to Chile, Barcelona to Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest against governments. Unfortunately these events frequently turn violent, but it should be noted that, at the time of writing, there have been few deaths. This is very striking and suggests restraint on the part of everyone, authorities and protestors alike. The reasons for the increase in protests range from climate change (which is having an insidious but serious impact) to unemployment to global anomie. This is, to my mind, the key concept. As originally developed by Émile Durkheim it is

“a social condition in which there is a disintegration or disappearance of the norms and values that were previously common to the society”

We have to respond to this upheaval, and not with repression.

I am really enjoying teaching on the Masters in Global Governance programme. I have 15 students, mostly all bright and engaged. I need to ask them what they think is going on, if they know the concept of anomie, and, perhaps, if this is how they feel! It is interesting how our points of reference are quite different, partly because of age (obviously), but also because of life experiences. I begin each class by asking what is going on the world, and letting people talk about what they think is important. It is pleasing to see how well informed the students are.

This may be my last term of teaching. In January 2020 I start a year of sabbatical, which will probably be spent mostly in Norwich. In January 2021 I will begin a year that will see me getting my last pay cheque from Laurier in December 2022. The pressing issue I need to address is: what do I want to achieve during my year on sabbatical? I think the answer is to finally (after 10 years) finish my book on The Political Economy of Swaziland. So much is happening there and not much is good.

I enjoy Waterloo. When I arrived one of the first people to greet me was Corinne Squire, a University of East London academic, Professor of Social Sciences and Co-Director of the Centre for Narrative Research. She keeps an eye on and writes about South Africa and HIV (separately and together). Her husband, Neil Turok, was Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) from 2008 to 2019. He holds the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Niels Bohr Chair in Theoretical Physics. The PI is ‘an independent research institute devoted to foundational issues in theoretical physics’. Neil was born in South Africa, the son of Mary and Ben Turok, activists in the anti-apartheid movement and the African National Congress. Neil said to me, when we first met: “There is always one interesting thing going on in Waterloo, the thing is to find it”. Words to live by.

So one of the interesting venues is a new ‘Speakeasy’ in Kitchener called Sugar Run. It is very much a place where you have to know about it to find. It is in an alley in downtown Kitchener. There is an anonymous brown door set into the side of a building. To get in one has to push a bell that lights a blue light in the bar. The door person opens up and asks for the password, and then one goes down into a large basement bar. I have been there twice, once to listen to an amazing swing band and second for a female vocalist. I have to say the atmosphere is remarkable and it is real discovery. I talked to one of the two owners about what they are doing and why. The answer is that they wanted to open this type of venue and ‘make it happen’. Good for them. Their advertising is on Instagram and Facebook, and the website is singularly uninformative.

The last week has been somewhat dominated by the death in a motorcycle accident of the uncle of one my good friends in Waterloo. I have been to two visitations in Waterloo, when the funeral home opens an area for family and friends to gather, pay respects and mourn. These can involve open caskets. In both cases the deceased were men on motorbikes! I am very glad my motorbike experience was small (120cc) bikes, in the country, on little travelled and mostly dirt roads.

The fall is well advanced in this part of Ontario. The hot dry summer led to a glorious display in the autumn. When the trees have their leaves, there is a green canopy, and it is hard to appreciate how urban this town is. We had very heavy rain over the last two days and that makes the view from the apartment rather dismal. In all likelihood I won’t see it next year and sometime soon I am going to have put the apartment on the market. Change is coming and the key will be to embrace it and actually work out what I want to achieve in the next four to five years. It may seem a little crazy, but getting involved in local politics is something that might be both rewarding and worthwhile. We shall have to see.