Hearts, Plays and Passports

The Yiddish proverb, “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht” translates as “Man plans, and God laughs”. A couple of months ago I became aware of an intermittent pain in my left shoulder. On a few occasions it was severe enough to wake me. I decided it was indigestion, and chewed a few Rennie’s tablets. This seemed to do the trick for a while but, towards the end of the month, it was happening more regularly, and the pain extended into my arm and up to my jaw. I probably would have ignored it but I was advised to have it checked out.

I went to the local GP and at this point the diagnosis is angina. In the next week I will have blood tests, an ECG and possibly an angiogram. I was given pills: statins, baby aspirin and something to regularise my heartbeat. This change in my health status has come as a shock. A month ago, I was all set to sign up for the 5 km park run, there are three very close to where we live. This has had to be put on hold. I will be glad to get a clearer diagnosis and prognosis, and hopefully, take part in park runs.

This is a small shadow over what has been an interesting period. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival is held over three weeks every May. It includes music, spoken word, theatre, and workshops. There were five venues in Norwich and a couple in the county. I have, shamefully, never attended it. In part this is because I was often away at festival time, but also I never got my act together. This year was different. I managed to get to several performances. There could have been more events on my programme, but I left it too late to get tickets.

Some of the events were free and not all were good! Our festival began with two free shows on a Saturday morning. The first was an interpretive dance held in front of the Forum, one of the large public buildings in the centre of Norwich. This did not float my boat. The second item was a short programme of music by an Irish violinist Úna Palliser. This was in the Norwich Guildhall, an amazing ancient building in the heart of the city. It was brief but fun.

Rowan, Douglas and I went to Le Coup. Five Australians performing circus acts. For a lot of this the main prop was a rope, and amazing levels of strength. I was also very taken by the astonishing tap dancing. The notes for the show said: ‘Australia is lucky enough to have youth circus schools in most states, which offer a welcoming place for all to get involved in the creative world of circus from a young age’. The show was in the main venue, a large circus tent, the “Adnams Speigeltent”, Adnams is a local brewer and the tent is a big top.

The one act I really wanted to see was Le Vent du Nord, a Québecois folk music group. The show was sold out when I tried to buy tickets, so I put my name down in case there were any returns. I was incredibly lucky because, on the day of the show I got a phone call from the box office to tell me two tickets were available. Ailsa and I went down that evening and thoroughly enjoyed the music. All the songs were in French, but it did not matter, their passion and the foot tapping nature of the tunes was fantastic.

This show was in the main tent, and there were no seats! We stood. We were at the back, and it was a little alarming that the heads of the audience were uniformly grey or bald. The boomers were out in force for the festival. I recently came across a definitive guide to the generations. Baby boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964 (me), Gen X are 1965 to 1980, Millennials are 1981 to 1996, and Gen Z are 1997 to 2012. I would say Boomers and Gen X were 90% of the audience. What they lacked in youth they made up for in enthusiasm.

My personal recent triumph was getting my British passport renewed. I had left it very late, the reason being that I had misunderstood what the expiry date meant. My passport was issued in February 2013, but according to the information on the inside page it would only run out on 23rd October 2023. Oh, I thought, that means I can go to South Africa in May, and there will be no problem travelling back. Not really the case. Some countries insist that you have six months validity on the passport, and don’t recognise the ‘bonus time’. I only found this out because of an article in the Sunday Observer a few weeks ago.

It is possible to get a passport quickly if you are prepared to go to a Passport Office and pay a premium. It costs £160 for a rapid issue passport. I made an appointment to attend the office in the east end of London, at Canary Wharf at 1.15pm. I took the train from Norwich to Liverpool Street. The passport office was exceptionally easy to get to, just three stops away on the Underground, the spanking new Elizabeth line with immaculate rolling stock.

I was way too early so decided to have lunch before joining the queue. That was an interesting and eye-opening experience. The restaurant manager tried to discourage me, saying they were very short of staff. She was prepared to allow me in, provided I ordered a simple cold dish, and managed my expectations. My table was facing the door and I watched her turn away numerous prospective customers. It must have been frustrating.

The process at the Passport Office was not dissimilar to the one I went through in South Africa: lots of queuing. The big differences were the amount initially done online, and the queues moved more rapidly. I am sure one of the main reasons for the relative speed was that the staff in England did not have to contend with loadshedding! There were two queues, the first to get a number, the second to see a clerk. It took just under an hour. The promise was that I would get the passport through the post in seven days, and indeed that is almost exactly what happened, the passport was delivered by a courier company within the week. I am now fully equipped to travel, apart from having purchased a ticket that is.

Some not such good news as we move into spring in Norfolk. In the past I have always been delighted to see the swifts return to the skies about the house. Their darting, soaring flight and high-pitched whistling makes my heart warm. Sadly, fewer have returned this year. I hope this is temporary, but we are deeply aware of all the environmental challenges they face. On the other hand, we have not mowed much of the lawn, and the array of wildflowers is very pleasing. Hopefully this will, in turn, encourage more insect life. We have not had a cat or dog for a few years now, and that is a bonus for the birdlife. The most common birds here are blackbirds, but over the past few weeks I have seen starlings and sparrows in the garden.

For most of this year I have been dabbling in writing a memoir. To be clear it is not yet very good, nor is it finished. I am looking forward to feedback from selected family and friends. My goal is to get as much down on paper as I can, and that has already made me realise that it will have to be divided into two parts. I have written most of volume one which covers my family and from my birth to completing university. This is relatively uncontroversial, I hope. The second part, from taking my first job up to retirement, will have to cover work and personal challenges. It will require more careful selection in the selection of what I write about and how I write it. I look forward to keeping you up to date on this.

Elections and Coronations in Spring

There were two Bank Holidays in England at the beginning of May. The ‘Early’ May Bank Holiday fell on 1st May. This, briefly, put the UK in step with much of the world, where May Day, or International Workers Day, is always celebrated on 1st May. But it will only be the case for 2023. One week later Monday the 8th May was gazetted as the public holiday to mark the coronation of Charles and Camilla on Saturday 6th May.

Some of the ideas put forward around the coronation illustrate how tone deaf the Monarchy and their supporters are, although it must be said that the press did their best to make up ‘shock horror’ stories. The first example was the ‘Oath of Allegiance’. This will, as part of the ceremony, be sworn by those present in Westminster Abbey. It was suggested that British citizens watching the coronation could do this (swear the oath), from their sofas to create a “Homage for the People”. The Mirror, a downmarket paper, had a headline: “Religious leaders sparked outrage saying those watching on TV can join the 2,000 in Westminster Abbey”. Lambeth Palace, the source of Church of England press releases, backtracked and said this would be an ‘invitation not an expectation’. I should hope so!

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There is no doubt that spring is in full swing! It is welcome after a spell of chilly weather at the end of March. The clocks changed a few weeks ago so we have an extra hour of light in the evening. The daffodils are in full bloom, as are the trees and bushes: hawthorn and magnolia to mention just two. The leaves are rapidly unfurling on most of the trees, the exceptions being the laggard silver birches and walnut. The theme for this month’s post is change, and I am aware of change in more than the garden. Spring comes every year of course, but there are bigger changes.

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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!

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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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