Aging is a mixed blessing

At the age of 66 I do not consider myself to be ‘old’. I believe I am not yet at the point where I have to consider Dylan Thomas’s injunction:

‘Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage ‘against the dying of the light.’1

Equally I am pleasantly surprised to find some advantages to age. In the UK, provided a person has made enough contributions to National Insurance, they are guaranteed a state pension. The age at which one can get it has risen and will continue to do so. It is not a huge amount, and no one should have to live on that alone, although there are people who do. This is made possible by pension credits and free health care through our National Health Service. Aged Britons do not have outrage of their Gallic counterparts, where Macron is facing angry ‘wrinklies’.

Last March (2022) I reached that age. There is a huge sense of satisfaction in seeing payments being made into my bank account every four weeks. And yes, that means there are thirteen in a year! In addition, there have been a number of one off payments to help with energy bills. The government was unable to target this, so they were made to all pensioners, and people on other benefits. There is much to complain of with the current government UK, but some things work well.

A couple of weeks ago I submitted my bus pass application to Norfolk County Council. The process took only 10 minutes, including taking my picture on the laptop. The pass gives me free travel on local buses across the UK. This means I can walk over to the nearest bus stop, about a third of a kilometre away, and be in the centre of Norwich in 20 minutes. If I am prepared to walk a little further the choice of buses is increased.

I have been making more use of buses over the past few months. This is partly to reduce my carbon footprint, but also because time is an interesting concept: I have less of it in absolute terms, but more in relative terms (think about it). I am happy to spend the time travelling, and there are no parking issues, an added incentive! Of course, there are swings and roundabouts: I can travel free on the bus, but I am no longer able to leap up the stairs to the upper deck! The pass is something of an incentive to go into town more frequently, and that may be a good thing. I am struck by how many passengers have dogs, they are allowed on the buses (the dogs). Even more surprising, to me, is how many of my fellow passengers stop to talk to or pet the animals.

Without doubt the national news has been dominated by the incompetence of the Conservative government. On Sunday 29th January, following increasing pressure, Nadhim Zahawi was sacked as Tory Party chairman and thus lost his seat in the Cabinet. He had not disclosed that HMRC, the tax office, had investigated him for failing to declare income, and fined him a huge amount. The BBC asked his constituents what they thought, one said Mr Zahawi “had brought shame on the town”. He has actually, and from my point of view, happily, eroded the Tory credibility; at present they are a party of lies and sleaze.

To me the more concerning aspect was that Zahawi threatened legal action against a journalist who was investigating this. Even more disturbing is that he did not resign but had to be sacked. The days of people ‘falling on their swords’ seem to have gone. The arrogance of the man is quite astonishing. The litany of disgraceful behaviour continues. There is a scandal brewing about a large loan made to Boris Johnson during his premiership. The businessman who made the introduction was made the BBC chairman a few weeks later. Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, is under investigation for bullying. The country is wracked by industrial action from the public sector, most obviously the nurses, fire brigades and ambulance staff. The government fails to understand how much support there is for these workers, and it shows little sign of waning. The conservatives will lose the next election, they are so out of touch.

My political home is the Liberal Democrat Party. Let me acknowledge straight away that this is not entirely rational. The Lib Dems have fallen mightily since running the country in a coalition with the Tories from 2010 to 2015. The electorate punished us for this unholy alliance, and quite rightly so. At the beginning of 2023 the Tories have 355 MPs, Labour 195, the Scottish Nationalists 45, and the Lib Dems 14. The balance of the 650 seats are held by eight smaller parties and independents (and one is vacant).

Let me move on to a more lighthearted subject. It is a tradition for the Norfolk Lib Dems to hold an annual Burns Night Supper celebrating Scots poet Robbie Burns. These follow an established tradition. There is a piper playing as people take their seats making introductions impossible. The Selkirk Grace never fails to amuse me.

Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

This is followed by the Haggis being piped in and a series of toasts. There was a guest speaker. This year it was Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk from 2001 to 2019. He stood down rather than lose his seat, but sadly the constituency went Tory. He was most amusing and quite brief. Douglas came three years ago, but wild horses would not have got him there this year. He had a point; I think I was one of the younger people there. Another consequence of the Covid pandemic.

And so, I come to the end of this post. Over the last few days, the news has been dominated by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. This does not mean the other challenges we face have gone away. The world continues to warm at an alarming rate. The migrants cross the Mediterranean and the English Channel in a steady stream. The war in Ukraine is not over, indeed there may be spring offensives. Perhaps we must take heart from the end of Voltaire’s Candide. ‘ “I also know,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”’


Frosty starts

Oh my word this posting is late! When I began writing and posting this blog, years ago, I promised subscribers that they would not get more than one notification a month. I made an exception to this during the first year of Covid-19. Things were so confused that I tried to make sense of the news and share my understanding. I posted regular blogs on Covid, the science, public health and its causes and consequences. It was amazing to see how rapidly the readership increased. Thank you to everyone who responded and supported this. It was nice to know it was appreciated. I stopped the Covid blogs as the public information improved, but in addition the situation increased in complexity, and I knew I no longer had a comparative advantage.

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Passport trauma

One of the reasons I came to South Africa was that I needed to renew my SA passport. I am delighted to report I succeeded, although I found the whole process very stressful. Of course, it must also be said that the weather has been great, albeit a little rainy, and the social life fun. It has not been unbearably hot, although I did buy a portable air conditioner that I can move from room to room. So far, I have only turned it on two or three times. I appreciate it lurking in the corner, ready for action.

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Teeth and travel

At the beginning of October I developed a toothache. It persisted and got steadily worse. The dentist saw me immediately, for which I am very grateful, x-rayed the teeth, identified two abscesses, and gave me two antibiotics. One was anti-alcohol which meant I had a dry two weeks. The following week I was scheduled to fly to Johannesburg and drive to Eswatini (Swaziland). On the Monday there was a lump in my gum, and it was still very painful. I had an emergency appointment, the abscess was lanced, and the relief was immediate!

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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.

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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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