Don’t trust anyone with your WhatsApp messages!

It is important to celebrate small wins. Last Friday a horse drawing a hearse clip-clopped its way down the road past our front window. I only caught a glimpse of it as it went past, however when we went out later there was evidence – horse droppings in the road. When we were children, and my mother was establishing her garden, on what had been virgin veld in Swaziland, collecting cow pats was a regular weekend pursuit. We would pile into the car and drive along the dirt roads around Mbabane. When cow pat was spotted we would hustle out of the car and scoop it into a sack. I channelled my childhood, collected a bucket, went out, and now we have nutrition for at least a few of the roses!

And that leads me neatly into the next topic for this month, politicians and the UK government, which continues to amaze and dismay me. For the past week the news has been dominated by the leaking of WhatsApp messages, emanating from Matthew Hancock, and published in the Telegraph, a right-wing newspaper. In trying to make sense of this I will begin with the cast list. Before doing that, I need to be clear that these events are not important in the grand scheme, it is simply watching, with embarrassed horror, a political car crash in slow motion. We are fascinated and unable to look away. If the events convince undecided voters that the Tories are morally bankrupt and incapable of governing, that will be a good outcome. Let me list the dramatis personae.

Matthew Hancock1 MP is the Member of Parliament for West Suffolk. In July 2018 he was appointed as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Hancock endorsed Boris Johnson’s successful bid for leadership and was Health Secretary through Covid-19. In June 2021 he was caught on camera in his office kissing his mistress, Gina Coladangelo, thus breaching Covid regulations. He resigned as Health Secretary. In 2022, Hancock had the whip suspended for appearing in ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here’! He says he will stand down at the next election.

Isabel Oakeshott2 is a right-wing journalist who was political editor of The Sunday Times. She co-authored an unauthorised biography of former British prime minister David Cameron, Call Me Dave, and other non-fiction titles. It is the authorised book Pandemic Diaries, The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle Against Covid (2022) co-written with Hancock which is causing the stir. This is about Hancock’s role during the Covid-19. It is an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation.

Boris Johnson3 MP was Prime Minister (PM) and Leader of the Conservative Party from 2019 to 2022. I would describe him as a renaissance man, with Machiavellian tendencies, and an ability to adapt or obfuscate the truth. He supported withdrawal from the EU and was at the helm when the UK left. A few of the scandals that embroiled him were spending on Downing Street refurbishment; support of Owen Patterson; and lying about what he knew of MP Chris Pincher. This last led to mass resignations from government and his departure as PM. His moral bankruptcy enabled the scandals.

What is the issue? Hancock made at least 100,000 WhatsApp messages available to Oakeshott for their book. She then passed them to The Daily Telegraph, who have been publishing them in ‘The Lockdown Files’. She claimed this was in the public interest. Hancock regards this as breaking confidentiality and a betrayal. Oakeshott says Hancock sent a “threatening” message saying she had made a “big mistake”. However we learn, for example, Hancock proposed blocking funding for local projects in the constituencies of MPs who opposed the government on lockdown, this is alarming.

This story is still unfolding, it confirms some journalists can’t be trusted, no surprise there. At best, Hancock is naïve, at worst, he is completely lacking in judgement. It is further eroding the already miniscule confidence in politicians, who are seen to have contempt for the public. It shows the Conservative Government is past its ‘sell-by date’. Their policies are bankrupt, their politicians are self-serving and many people believe they are not to be trusted. The danger is that there is some time before the next election must be called, and ‘a week is a long time in politics.’ What remains to be seen is if the Tories can rehabilitate the party and the opposition keep up the pressure.

I am, as readers of this blog know, a Liberal Democrat. Ailsa is a Green. We are members of small parties with little chance of taking power. However, if these parties cannot be the Kings (or Queens) they could be the King makers and influence policies. Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons the Tories have 355, Labour, the opposition, has 197, the Liberal Democrats 14 and the Greens just one. What needs to happen is an alliance among opposition parties on a seat-by-seat basis. There has, though, been much progress at the local government level: county and district councils.

Enough of this! The weather is sometimes a filler in these blogs. I find it fascinating but know this is a niche interest. January and February were incredibly dry and cool, but not cold. I have both a rain gauge and a minimum/maximum thermometer so I can keep a record of these indicators. The rain gauge had nothing to report. The thermometer recorded day after day of miserable temperatures with little variation. The reason for this stasis was high pressure sitting over the UK, keeping the Atlantic frontal systems at bay. Finally in March we had rain and, indeed, even snow showers. There was about two inches of very welcome rain in the last few days.

Inevitably with the budget just having been tabled in parliament in South Africa, and about to be presented in the UK, money and incomes are an issue. This is made all the more imperative by the cost of living crisis and inflation. In the UK in January 2023 inflation was 8.8%, in South Africa it was 6.9%. Which?, the British consumer magazine, produced figures showing what level of income is needed in retirement for various lifestyles and I reproduce these below, with the South Africa equivalents calculated on 10th March 2023.4 It should be remembered that in the UK the National Health Service reduces out-of-pocket payments for health care, so I think South Africans need more.

Annual Income Needed for Various Lifestyles in the UK (in £ and in Rand)
Household size Essential Comfortable Luxury
£ R £ R £ R
Single person household 12,000 266,000 19,000 420,000 31,000 685,000
Two-person household 18,000 399,000 28,000 619,000 45,000 995,000

Although I find the weather and money endlessly fascinating, I recognise it is not everyone’s passion! I have also enjoyed some of the recent television. The series Happy Valley was excellent but bleak. It was a ‘police procedural’ set in the gritty north of England. The film, The Banshees of Inisherin, was released in 2022. This film had a lot of good publicity and sounded most intriguing. It is a set on an island (perhaps one of the Aran islands) off the west coast of Ireland. The story is about a relationship between two men when one decides that the friendship is over, and the other neither understands nor accepts it. It is a bleak story of mental health problems and the difficulty of living in a small and isolated community. There is a nod to the unhelpful role of the church and existence of child abuse. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are the stars, and Martin McDonagh is the director and producer. They, together, made the film In Bruges (2008). Both films are worth watching and are thought provoking.

The other entertainment has been Pokerface. This is a murder mystery series centred around Charlie Cale who has the ability to detect lies which is interesting, but an inability to keep quiet when she does, which is hazardous for her. She travels from job to job across the United States and solves the homicides she comes across. The question of causation and correlation is not addressed! Each episode is a standalone story. The back story, introduced in the first episode, is that she is on the run from a casino owner, as she triggered his son’s suicide!

Let me end off the March Blog, and say I hope spring comes quickly.


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’.

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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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