The end of 2018 saw temperatures well above normal for this time of the year, confirming for me at least that global climate change is a reality. This is extremely concerning, and the scientists’ statement that we have only 12 years in which to get change in place is depressing. At the same time I am seeing signs of adaption. There are a number of fields in the flat, Fenland areas of Norfolk, Lincolnshire, and Cambridgeshire that are covered in solar panels. As we walk around the neighbourhood it is encouraging to see the growing number of houses with panels. Let us hope 2019 brings more change. I fear it will take some major political change in the USA for these messages to be taken seriously, but action is happening at the local level.
Beyond environmental change there are some major disruptions in the UK. The most obvious one is Brexit. We really are uncertain as to what is going to happen. The whole thing has been totally mismanaged, and is still not being properly communicated to the populace. The original referendum result was 52% wanting to leave the EU and 48% wanting to remain. I think, with hindsight, the problem was that we did not have a clear idea of what leaving would mean. At the moment there are some polls suggesting 17% of those who voted leave have changed their minds, but only 4% of the ‘remainers’ would vote differently. Clearly there has been a change of heart among the public. Sadly politicians are out of touch, unyielding and unwilling to revisit the issue. A new referendum would be best.
Theresa May’s government’s negotiating position with the EU seems incoherent, and the level of forward planning is abysmal. In the last week of 2018 the BBC broke a story of a new company, ‘Seaborne Freight’, being awarded a £13.8m contract to run a freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend. Apparently the company has no ferries; has never run a ferry service; does not have many assets; and could or would not give reporters names of boats they plan to use. The BBC report said: “A local councillor said it would be impossible to launch before Brexit”. Incompetence is bad, let us hope this is not evidence of corruption. There is not much citizens can do, but the project could still fall flat on its face!
Across the country there is also a discernible and worrying change in shopping patterns. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog to know that the amount of shopping online has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years. The manifestation of this is the number of empty shops on the high streets and malls. Norwich has two malls. The Castle Mall shopping centre was opened in September 1993. At the time it seemed a sensible development; it replaced the old cattle market – which had become an ugly car park. It was appropriate, sensitive and complements the magnificent castle, that was built between 1050 and 1075 and dominates the city. The second mall was on the site of the Rowntree chocolate factory. When I first came to Norwich, if the wind was in the right direction, the smell of chocolate was (just) detectable across the city. Both malls have significant numbers of empty shops, and this has only happened in the last year or so.
Our Christmas was generally quiet, unfortunately like the city. My sister came from London, not an easy journey since the railways always undergo much needed maintenance and upgrading over this period. Fortunately there are two possible routes to Norwich: from King’s Cross via Cambridge or Ely; or the more direct one from Liverpool Street Station. She came on packed trains via Cambridge.
The leaves are falling in Canada, and of course across the Northern Hemisphere, but that is an inference and an assumption. I have watched the trees from my apartment’s window and can confidently speak for them at least. The colours were amazing, but it is now coming to an end, indeed one tree already has completely bare branches. Soon the only green will be the conifers, and of course, the grass, when it is not covered by snow.
I do not indeed to spend much of this winter, 2018-2019, in Canada, I have done my time in this season here over the past four years. I feel the concept of ‘brass monkey’s cold’ is one I now grasp. Walking on ice and landing flat on my backside is also an experience I have had, as is dressing as one leaves one building and undressing on entering the next. I shall take a break.
It has been an interesting month though. In the last letter I talked about visiting my brother and seeing my extended family in the Cape in South Africa. In October he came to Canada for a few days while his wife Lynn was with friends in New York. We had planned to meet at Pearson airport and go up to Montreal for a couple of nights. Of course when one is working to a schedule things can and do go wrong. The last fast train from Toronto to Montreal was at 17:57. Derek’s plane was scheduled to arrive at 16:16, so we should have made it. Of course the flight was late, so we had to rethink the weekend. We did check what a flight would cost, and the answer was too much.
We took the airport train to Union station, bought tickets for the next day and then found a reasonable hotel near the station in Toronto for the night. The journey takes about 5 hours and is actually rather tedious, so it was a pity we had to go up on Friday and return on Saturday (Derek’s plane from Toronto was at midday on Sunday).
Half of September was in South Africa and half in Norwich. I travelled from Norwich to Cape Town via Amsterdam on the 1st September. This visit was to oversee the scientific writing course we held in Stellenbosch. The KLM flight takes over 11 hours and seemed very long, especially since these days I usually travel in economy. I am very grateful for my ‘Life Time Platinum Elite’ frequent flyer status as it gives me seating choices and lounge access. This practically means I usually get a bulkhead seat with more leg room, and that really makes a difference over long flight.
The 2nd (Sunday) was a free day and on Monday the participants started arriving. The programme is mainly taught by my friend and colleague, Tim Quinlan, whom I have known for close to 30 years. He came to Durban to teach at the University of Durban-Westville, which in those apartheid days was the ‘Asian’ higher education establishment. He subsequently joined HEARD as the first Research Director. This is the second year that he has run this programme with me. I am very lucky to also have as the main recruiter and administrator Nick Zebryk, who did a degree at the Balsillie School, and was my first (and last) full time research assistant in Waterloo. He managed the application process, and travelled to South Africa to troubleshoot. Thanks to his hard work there was no trouble to shoot!
We had 16 people from across Africa. On this occasion the largest number were from Malawi (four). I had taken some flack last year as six people were from Swaziland and this was seen favouritism. Everyone came with work in progress, and both Tim and I met with individuals to go through their manuscripts. We finished on Friday morning and on Saturday I went to Cape Town and spent a night in the City Lodge at the Waterfront. Firstly I wanted time by myself and the hotel is ideal for that; second I had a lunch meeting with the acting editor of the Global Fund Observer. This is run by a Kenyan-based NGO AIDSpan and I am on the board. As with all donor funded organisations, there is the constant need to raise funding and this means being relevant and supportable. Fortunately, so far, this has not been an issue for us.
In my last post I wrote about how little rain there had been in Norwich. Thank heavens the drought has broken. Over the month we had periods of decent rain. This was perfect, it thoroughly soaked the ground and filled the water butts. It was as though every plant in the garden heaved a collective sigh of relief and reached their leaves heavenward. In the dog days of summer they are doing their best to make up for lost time and get as much growing, flowering and pleasure in before the cooler nights begin. Trees are no longer shedding leaves because of lack of water, heat and stress. Along the highways and byways of Norfolk gardeners are selling excess produce on tables and little huts. It is an honour system whereby one stops, selects what one wants, and leaves money. We are at the beginning of Autumn, as described by Keats in his 1819 poem; the first stanza is below.
Ode to Autumn
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;
In July 2018 I went to my last Governing Council meeting at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College (WK) where I have been a Governor for 24 years. I thought I would weep at the farewell cocktail party. To my surprise I did not. Perhaps this was because of the example of fellow Governor Derek Blackman retiring after nine years. Derek never tires of reminding me that, in the minutes of the meeting where he was nominated, a Governor (in fact me) remarked this was a mistake as he was based in the UK and would not travel to the meetings. He attended all 27 meetings during his tenure and made a great contribution. It was, however, an emotional evening. I posted my farewell remarks on my website, not because they were earth-shattering, but because I put thought into them and they are reflective.
I stayed at the Mountain Inn which has become my home in eSwatini. It is at the top of the Ezulwini Valley and has magnificent views. I was particularly glad to spend time with Quinton Reissmann, who was at St Mark’s primary school with me. He is currently a teacher at WK, having worked mainly in government schools in Swaziland. We are both grey (him more than me because he has hair). When I am with him I feel the years fall away.
The hotel has five new rooms. They were good enough to put me in the largest, not that I needed the space. The new rooms were not the biggest change, a couple of months ago it was announced that the country was changing its name from Swaziland to Eswatini. In this, and future writing I will refer to past events as having happened in Swaziland, but from now, if it is something new, I will talk about Eswatini. I had a very African experience, as I was walking down to the room one evening I felt a thump on my upper arm. I wondered what it was: a large moth? When I got to the room I glanced to down and to the left. There was a little gecko riding, contentedly, on my shoulder!
This final note for 2017 will be posted just before the end of the year. It was written over a couple days after Christmas, and before I travelled to Canada on the 29th December. I have been in the UK for three weeks, flying over at the end of the first week of December. We celebrated Christmas in Norwich. My sister came up from London for the holiday. On the actual day Rowan and her partner Ben drove across the city for the big meal.
Rowan had suggested we go to her house as she is, at the moment, fostering three young cats. The poor creatures were feral and they are taking time to get used to people. After much thought we decided to have everything in our house. We feared the festivities, and number of people, might have been a bit much for nervous cats. We had a really great meal. Ben introduced me to ‘pigs in blankets’, sausages wrapped in bacon, a real treat for the only two carnivores. Everyone else is vegetarian so the rest of the meal was a vegetarian feast.
Unusually everyone got gifts they really wanted. I made a point of sending out my wish list early in the month, but still had complaints because I had not specifically told the family who should buy what! One of the themes of my gifts was maps. Gill bought an old, 1952, ordinance survey map of Norfolk and a scratch World Map, the idea being that the gilt overlay gets scratched off every country one has visited. Ailsa got me a jigsaw puzzle of Norwich, which I am looking forward to assembling.
I finished teaching in Konstanz on Friday 3rd November. Rowan arrived on the Wednesday before this. The cancellation of a train from Zurich Airport meant she got in sometime later than we hoped. As predicted by the family, she got the bedroom and I took over the sofa bed in the apartment’s lounge. This made sense since I get up frequently during the night. She had only two full days in the town and we went to Friedrichshafen and the Spa, both second visits for me, but no less enjoyable. She came to class on the Friday, my last session. All students produced blog posts, those who wanted, have them posted with this blog.
On Saturday 4th November we flew from Zurich to Amsterdam and stayed in an Ibis Budget hotel not far from the airport. The actual hotel was very basic but entirely fine, the rooms sleep three people with a bunk bed arrangement over the double bed. There should, perhaps, be a warning “Beware of falling children”.
It seemed a very remote spot and I was not confident of our ability to get into the city. The receptionist said confidently that there was a bus stop across the road, and the bus, a number 193, went punctually every 15 minutes. I expected a lonely pole on the banks of a drainage ditch, but instead it was a busy barn sized structure with numerous buses. All we had to do was cross four lanes of traffic. We went to Leidseplein near the centre of Amsterdam, found a decent restaurant, enjoyed a good meal, and got the bus back with no difficulty at all.
Travelling over to Canada at the beginning of September was something of a movie feast. The flight times have changed, so I was able to get the 2 o’clock flight in the afternoon to Amsterdam to connect with a late evening flight to Toronto, times I consider more conducive to watching films. On the plane from Norwich to Amsterdam was a gentleman travelling to Nashville for a Comic Convention. He informed me (and the cabin crew), that he lived in rural Norfolk, not far from where my family came from. His job: to draw Superman for DC comics.
I was lucky on the flight from Amsterdam to Toronto and got upgraded to business class. Apart from excellent food, it gives one the chance to watch films on a slightly larger screen. Douglas and I had been to see the film Dunkirk in Norwich. On this leg of the journey I watched two other films relating to the Second World War. I am going to spend time reflecting on Dunkirk, before talking about them. I think it is an important, and potentially influential movie, particularly at this point in Britain’s political history.
It has been an interesting and active four weeks. I travelled to South Africa in the middle of the month. The weekend before the journey we drove to Kent, to visit my half-sister Pat, who is 24 years older than me. Unfortunately her husband, David, was in hospital for a hernia operation. This did not go well initially. He has recovered now, but he was in hospital for the entire time we were there. His misfortune meant their children, who are slightly younger than me, were about. We had a lunch, with all my siblings present and then with members of Pat and David’s family. It was a four drive from Norwich. Going down the traffic uses the bridge across the Thames at Blackwall, coming back we drove thought the tunnel. These are both tolled, but there was a transponder on the car we hired which simply beeped. This is a theme of the blog post in July – transponders!
We had a good time. Ailsa found an idyllic cottage, ‘May’s Cottage‘. It had two bedrooms so my sister Gill, who took the train down from London, was able to stay with us. There was an area to sit outside and it was amazingly peaceful and beautiful. The swallows swooped, cows mooed and foxes barked. It is far enough from Gatwick airport that I was able to enjoy the sight of the planes but it was not too disruptive. All in all a very good weekend.
In the middle of February I greatly enjoyed sitting in my office or my apartment and watching the snow fall. It was quite magical. In total we probably had about 10 cm, enough to cover the ground and make everything into a winter wonderland. Normally here there is a period when the ground is covered by grey snow as it slowly melts. In the corner of the parking lots there are piles of the white stuff, bulldozed there by the clearance teams. This year it warmed up from about the 18th of February and most of the snow disappeared very rapidly. I woke one morning to see a digger loading the snow into large trucks in our apartment parking lot. It is taken away and dumped somewhere. There must have been at least six or seven loads. It was probably necessary to do this, because the piles take a very long time to melt, and the snow was heaped in the guest parking. It provided an insight into the workings of Canada in the winter, and perhaps even into the cost, as I’m sure this service will appear on the bill.