Of Funerals and Families

For most people living in the United Kingdom, the 10 days between the 8th and 19th of September passed in a blur. On the evening of Thursday 8th of September it was announced that the Queen had died. There was a well-prepared plan for this eventuality known as Operation London Bridge, covering everything from the announcement of her death, through the mourning period to the state funeral. It was developed in the 1960s and frequently revisited. There are similar plans for other royals.

The phrase “London Bridge is down” was used to communicate the death of the Queen to the Prime Minister and key personnel and set the wheels in motion. The groups involved in preparing and carrying out the plan included government departments, the Church of England, the Metropolitan Police Service, the Armed Forces, the media, the Royal Parks, London boroughs, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London. Reporting on the preparations, The Guardian described them as “planned to the minute” with “arcane and highly specific” details. But they really worked well!

The death of the Queen came as a surprise to many. Two days before she died she had audiences with Boris Johnson, the outgoing Prime Minister, accepting his resignation and shortly after with Liz Truss, inviting her to form a government. Given the political upheaval I don’t think many people had focussed on the Queen and her health. The funeral, held on Monday 19th, was an outstanding show of pageantry and pomp. It was attended by 2,000 people, including many heads of state. As an aside Joe Biden was the only one allowed to use his own transport!

The coffin was taken from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey for the service. It was then drawn on a gun carriage by 142 sailors through the streets of London to Wellington Arch. Here it was put in a hearse for the journey to Windsor, where there was more ceremony, and the Queen was laid to rest inside St George’s Chapel. The procession was amazing, huge numbers of military, bands, and music, as well as representatives of civil society, all led by a contingent of Canadian Mounties. The television was on for most of the day, and it was compulsive viewing. Global media attention was focussed on the events in London, it seemed there was no other news. No one does pageantry quite like the British and the immaculate uniforms and precision marching were indeed spectacular. When we went into Norwich in the afternoon the streets were deserted, and nearly every shop was closed. It was as though the strictest Covid restrictions had returned.

Parliamentary politics in the UK had been wracked by dissention, infighting and, well, politicking. Boris Johnson was forced from office by the Conservative MPs. The ostensible reason was the allegations of sexual misconduct by the former Conservative Party Deputy Chief Whip, Chris Pincher. Johnson denied knowledge of complaints about Pincher but then had to admit he had not told the truth. This coming, as it did, after a series of scandals and several disastrous by-elections, resulted in an unheard of 62 of the 179 ministers, and other government staff resigning between the 5th and 7th July. Johnson announced he would resign but remain in office until his successor had been chosen.

The system was MPs whittled the candidates down from eight to two through five ballots. The field, four of whom were women and four were not white was reduced to a choice between Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary. There were several weeks of increasingly bad tempered campaigning. The new party leader, and automatically Prime Minister, was elected only by the 172,437 members of the Conservative party. They are mostly elderly, middle class and white. Truss was elected as leader and Prime Minister.

The Queen’s last duties were to accept the resignation of Boris Johnson. A few hours later Liz Truss was in Balmoral to get the Queen’s blessing to form a new government. The political upheaval and the Royal Funeral dominated and resulted in a hiatus in decision making that went beyond the UK.

On a different and more personal note, we had a family gathering in a leafy south London suburb a couple of weeks ago. It was hosted by my niece, Kate, the daughter of my half-sister Pat. The excuse for the gathering was to see Pat and her husband David, who are 91 (with a mere six months between them). They are remarkably fit and show few signs of age. Kate works in media and is based in Moscow with her Russian husband. Kate and Olga, their daughter, did a magnificent job of catering, provided an excellent lunch, and put up with us until about 6pm. Everyone not only got on, but as we moved around people were able to talk to family members they hardly knew. The 19 people were all there because of my father, Walter Jack Whiteside (1899 to 1989), also father to Pat, Derek and Gill and Jean Mary. Every individual was either directly related, children or grandchildren or married/engaged or involved with the said descendants. It was quite an amazing thought.

We managed to get through the weekend without spreading Covid. Unfortunately, it hit the household soon after with both Douglas and Ailsa testing positive and having to isolate. I had had it about six weeks before, I believe I got it while travelling from Cape Town to Norwich. I did not infect Douglas or Ailsa to our surprise, they got it elsewhere. Covid is a nasty disease, thank heavens we have all been vaccinated, who knows what would have happened otherwise.

Back in Norwich we were in the grip of drought, it had not rained properly for months. The garden was surviving, but only just! Bathwater was being carried down and poured on the most precious plants. Fortunately, we had decent rain in September. Climate change is real. Of course, we know what is going on here, but much of Europe is facing similar problems. Shipping on the Rhine is having to carry lighter loads or else they cannot navigate the shallower waters. In Norway the dry spell means hydro-electric plants cannot operate. That affects all of Europe since they are part of the continent-wide grid. In addition, it has been unseasonably warm.

Not all is bleak though. At the end of the garden there is a cluster of, at least, nine large trees: one apple, four firs, one holly, and two silver birches plus a great deal of undergrowth. It is a haven for wildlife and the squirrels have a dray there. It has been a pleasure watching the younger ones playing in the garden, chasing each other up and down trees. The heat meant that I worked with the shed windows and door open. I was sitting reading a few afternoons ago, vaguely aware of the squirrels scampering about on the roof. I am not sure what happened, but there was suddenly a loud thump and there in the doorway was a surprised looking squirrel. It really gave me a fright. A few minutes later it happened again. Wikipedia tells me there are flying squirrels in North America and Central America, genus Glaucomys (sabrinus, volans and oregonensis), while the Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) is found in northern Europe: Russia, Finland and Estonia. I claim to be the first person to identify the Norfolk plummeting squirrel which I suggest be named Petromys stagneum (or perpendiculum depending on the translation software).

Some small town news. In Norwich I recently discovered a small yard right opposite the Guildhall. It has the delightful name of Labour in Vain Yard. This is from Psalm 127 verse 1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” Apparently, there was a pub by that name in the yard, and the sign was painted by well-known Norwich School painter John Croome over 200 years ago. We had occasion to go up to Yorkshire and decided to go out for supper with family. There is little open on a Sunday, but I identified an Italian restaurant called ‘Florena’s’ in Howden. I was managing expectations, but it turned out to be one of the best Italian meals I have eaten in a long time. The husband and wife, in their 80s, who started the restaurant were eating there and greeted us as they left. It is still a family business and well worth visiting.

Back to the Heatwave

I returned to the UK in mid-August after spending just under three weeks in Canada. As I said in my last posting I did not think I would be able to travel, as I had Covid. Fortunately, I started testing negative a few days before the scheduled departure. It was an interesting trip. The first part was to attend the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting ahead of the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. I then travelled down to Waterloo for 10 days. It was great to reconnect with many friends.

There were changes and sights that really shocked me though. In Montreal we saw a young woman attacked by a vagrant at 7.30 in the morning. She got away before we could intervene, and went to a nearby police car. When I arrived at the Kitchener station, there was a tent camp next to the railway line. The sight of tents and tarpaulins providing shelter to many people was totally unexpected. Worse was to come, I was told there was another informal settlement in, the rather special, Victoria Park, next to the first house I rented. The person who gave me this information warned that it might not be safe to go too close, a telling comment in and of itself! The formerly pristine park is home to another encampment. In South Africa it would be called a squatter camp!

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Pandemics and travels

It has been an inordinately long time since I last posted to my website. A lot has happened. In early July I travelled from Durban to Cape Town for a few days, seeing friends and staying with Derek and Lynn (my brother and wife). On Sunday 10th July I flew from Cape Town back to Norwich via Amsterdam. By Thursday I had a scratchy throat, headache, cough, and a metallic taste in my mouth. A day later I tested positive for Covid-19. The virus I had written so much about got me! I was not seriously ill, but it was not pleasant. I am convinced I was infected in an airport or on a plane.

I was due to travel to Montreal for the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting ahead of the International AIDS Conference on Monday 25th July. Although I do not believe I was infectious, travelling seemed unwise. I was very relieved to consistently test negative in the days before I flew. At one point I thought my attendance was in doubt which would have been difficult for my colleagues as we were co-organising a meeting.

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Reconnecting with the country

Earlier this month I did a six-day road trip from Cape Town to Durban. My travelling companion was an old friend: a gaunt, chain smoking (when he had the chance and not in the car, hotels or restaurants), grey haired academic, who shall be called Sancho, after Don Quixote’ Sancho Panza, he was going to remain nameless, but that did not work. We have been friends for over 35 years, having originally met on the touch rugby field in Durban in the 1980s. The game took place, once a week, for well over 20 years. It was ‘the left’ at play, and some deep long-term friendships developed.

I am not going to make this a ‘traditional’ travelogue, so let me quickly get the description of the trip out of the way. I will put in the links throughout.

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Jubilees and a Slow Start to Summer

A month ago, I wrote that we were waiting on tenterhooks for the swifts to return, and to see if there were any takers for the nest boxes we had installed. I am delighted to say that the birds arrived a couple of days after the post was published, although there have been no obvious takers for the ‘accommodation’ we are providing. Unfortunately, the swift box that plays swift calls developed a fault. I don’t want to attract swifts with laryngitis, so it was sent off for repair, but that meant we lost a couple of weeks. The sound of swifts is like lost souls wheeling and shrieking overhead, but the sight of them makes up for the sound.

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Funerals, Memorials and Spring

We are waiting on tenterhooks for the swifts to return to Norwich. In summer 2021, we had six nest boxes installed, under the eaves, on the side of the house. It was too late for that breeding season, so we will only learn if the birds find them attractive in the next few weeks. We are told to encourage them by playing recordings of swifts calling. The conservationists warn that it may take a couple of years before birds choose to nest in our boxes.

The story of swifts is a counterpoint to sadness I have experienced over the last weeks. In early May we attended the funeral service of Joan Watts (3 June 1926 to 8 April 2022). A long life and, as the person who took the service told us, a happy and good one. We knew her as the sister of Arthur Duffield, whom Ailsa had befriended as part of her bereavement support network. Arthur died two years ago. He was a widower and as neither he nor his sister had children, that direct lineage ends. Joan lived and managed on her own, amazing considering she had a leg amputated.

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War in Europe

My last blog post was on 23rd February 2022. The next day we woke to the news that Russian troops had invaded Ukraine. A month later the fighting rages across the nation. I find it shocking to write those words. The Western press reports the Russian war has not gone to plan. They were, we are told, expecting a quick invasion accompanied by the collapse of Ukrainian resistance, and Russian troops being welcomed as liberators. This is certainly not the case. However, it is important to recognise that the truth is the first casualty of war.

This month’s blog is a reflection on my experiences in Ukraine. Kyiv is one of the cities I most enjoyed visiting. The Ukrainians we met and worked with were wonderful people. My time there made me want to learn Ukrainian and go back as a tourist. What is happening is quite dreadful and unprovoked. Putin appears deranged and vicious, but it is difficult to predict what will happen.

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‘Love Light’ and ‘Love Life’. Reflections on Retirement

The heading for this posting is taken from a festival held in Norwich in mid-February and my own admonition to myself. It has been a while since I last posted anything on my website, it was at the beginning of January I see. Confusingly quite a lot has happened, but at the same time it seems as though not very much has. Perhaps a sign of the times.

I am coming to the end of my second month of retirement. It is challenging. One of my wise friends wrote to me saying there were three things to be aware of with this changing status. The first is a dramatic decline in income. This is certainly true. That is not to say that I don’t have enough, I do, but instead of, in economic terms, drawing from the flow I may need to dip into the stock. Some argue good planning means the cheque for one’s funeral should bounce because there are insufficient funds. Sadly, I think this is not a feasible option. Gene Perret, a Hollywood screenwriter, said:

“Retirement: it is nice to be out of the rat race, but you have to learn to get along with less cheese.”

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Of Birds and Viruses

I have officially been retired since Saturday 1st January, or perhaps, to be pedantic, since midnight on 31st December 2021. I must confess to feeling a little uncertain as to what the future holds. There needs to be a plan, budget, and cash flow projection, all but the first can be done quickly. The Covid crisis has made planning difficult. I really want to do some travelling, but it is hard to book tickets with any confidence. This is changing slowly though. It is hard to believe that the world began this seismic shift just two years ago. I became aware of this new disease in January 2020. I had no idea how rapidly and far it would spread, or the incredible disruption it would cause. More on this later.

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Lovely Lisbon and Demonstrating in Norwich

I went to my first conference in nearly two years last month. It was fantastic for many reasons: a chance to get out of the UK; visit a new country and city; meet with colleagues; catch up with developments in the field; and above all be reminded of what we had lost. My word I enjoyed myself. The primary purpose of the trip was to attend the International Association of Providers in AIDS Care’s (IAPAC) Fast-Track Cities 2021 Conference.

To their credit the conference organizers included Covid-19 in the programme. My presentation, which I shared with Corey Prachniak-Rincon, an IAPAC staffer, was on ‘Exploring Legal, Public Policy, and Finance Dimensions of Health Responses.’ The take-home messages were not encouraging, until Covid is on the decline, HIV will not be a priority, even though it (HIV) is not going away. The number of HIV infections continues to rise.

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