Autumn and Spring Showers

The month of April began in the Cape and ended in Canada via Norwich. In the first week we ran the scientific writing course in Stellenbosch in the Cape. There were 19 participants from across Africa. Tim Quinlan did most of the teaching and the event was excellent. We are beginning to see results in submitted and published manuscripts from earlier years. I hope the project will be renewed, but if it is not then we have achieved a great deal. As my travel was from the southern to the northern hemisphere, I experienced autumn one day and spring the next. In England the daffodils have bloomed and are past their best. In Canada, or at least in this part, they have yet to blossom and it is still decidedly chilly.

Of course visiting Cape Town is also a chance to see family. My brother and sister-in-law were away but I caught up with my aunt, various cousins and a niece for Sunday lunch. I felt that I had not talked properly to niece Sarah, and she was good enough to join me for lunch on the Monday before I flew back to the UK. We walked across from the City Lodge to a new restaurant right next door. It was good to have a decent conversation and catch up with family news. Because the flight from Cape Town is so late (after 11 pm), I only watched one film: The Great Buster, a biopic of filmmaker and comedian Buster Keaton. He was one of the few stars who transitioned successfully from silent films to sound. It was not demanding so was good to watch in the small hours.

I had a relatively short spell in England. My sister came up from London for Easter and her birthday. We went to a show at the Norwich Playhouse, where Rowan works. It was an amateur production of A Sound of Music. It was outstanding. There were a few wrong notes, but not many at all. The set was imaginative and the acting most impressive. I think amateur productions can be excellent because people really throw their hearts into the show.

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Surgery and Sunshine

I was offline for a few days in March, an interesting experience especially during the time of crisis in the UK. It was my birthday on the 18th and I celebrated by returning to South Africa on the 16th for a series of elective medical procedures. I took the 06h15 KLM flight from Norwich to Amsterdam where I connected on the 10h15 flight to Johannesburg. The journey takes nearly 11 hours. My case was one of the first to be unloaded and appear on the carousel, these little things matter.

There are no connecting flights to Durban that late. My standard operating procedure is to stay in a hotel at the airport and connect the next day. Normally the travel agent’s opening proposal for the connection is a plane at an absurdly early hour, 07h00 for example. On this trip I was sensible and got a flight a little after 13h00. It allowed me ample time to sort myself out, and have a leisurely breakfast.

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More Climate Change

February in England was mild and dry, in my view clear evidence of environmental change. It is five minutes to midnight on the Doomsday clock. It is not surprising the birds and insects are reacting to this warm spell (between 5 and 10°C above seasonal averages). There was a robin singing its little heart out, on a tree with bare branches, yesterday evening. Robins are not shy, but it was unique to see this bird so clearly silhouetted against the very blue sky. We are not taking the urgent and dramatic actions needed to address what we are doing to our natural world. I fluctuate between optimism and despair.

It was an interesting month from the productivity point of view. I managed to complete and submit two pieces of work: an article and a book chapter. More importantly I did something long overdue that will, hopefully, improve my efficiency. Sometimes as I write I think to myself ‘I have said this before, but where?’ Over a morning I made a list of everything I had published, or drafted, since the beginning of 2016. This included the table of contents, a list of figures, tables and maps, and an abstract. My memory may be bad, but at least now I know where to look. I also listed ideas I have had and not properly developed, these could be revisited and turned into articles.

The month began with a visit to the Robert Bosch United World College in Freiburg in southern Germany. The founding headmaster of the college was the head at Waterford for many years. Indeed, I was the first governor to interview him in 1998. This was at a time when we were desperately looking for a new head. What had happened is we had appointed a man who turned out to be a disaster and who, fortunately, served only one contract. He was probably a good educationalist, but he did not have a grasp of finances. Because the reporting was not adequate, by the time the Governing Council realised what was going on, the school was deep in the red. We were lucky to get a couple from the UK to come and act in the Principal’s role while we went head hunting. Then we were lucky to get Laurence!

Laurence Nodder and his wife Debbie took up the position in 1998 and stayed for close to 15 years. He was then invited to establish the new United World College in Freiburg. That meant supervising building work, some new and some conversions of existing buildings, as well as recruiting staff and students. This was challenging, even in efficient Germany. As I saw walking around the college, they have done a remarkable job. I felt very lucky that Laurence invited me to come and give a public lecture to the school and community.

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“January brings the snow: makes your feet and fingers glow”

(Title: Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather’)

The first half of January was exceptionally warm for winter. We are told not to ‘cherry pick’ weather events to argue global warming is real. When they come one after the other, however, the evidence seems to be stacking up. The weather maps showed high pressure over the UK and to the south, so the fronts seem to be further north than usual. Scotland got a battering. Sadly the potential advent of Scottish independence won’t help that situation – weather is bigger than politics.

The rest of the month saw a few hard frosts, grey days and wind and rain, as well as some gloriously sunny spells. Even in the depths of winter the sun shining through the window can be warm enough to warm the south facing rooms. We have wood / coal burning stoves in the living areas and I must admit to getting a great deal of pleasure in laying and lighting the fire: paper, kindling larger pieces of wood and the coal. If I do it right we use 10 kg of coal for four fires. It warms both the room and the house very nicely.

If January weather was not enough to keep us depressed, the all-consuming topic in the UK is Brexit. Theresa May presented her deal to Parliament in mid-January, and it was soundly defeated. In fact the margin was astonishing: MPs voted by 432 votes to 202 to reject the deal. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately tabled a vote of no confidence, which, unsurprisingly was not passed. If it had been it would have led to a general election.

The problem is both the Conservative and Labour parties are both deeply divided on leaving the EU and the deal, so there is no consensus. An election would not help, unless the smaller parties did really well, which is unlikely. It is all a terrible mess. There have been, in past few days, more votes in Parliament and the situation is even more uncertain at the end of January.

The papers, or at least the ones I read, are full of commentary on the rise of the right in global politics. This is clearly happening, but just as worrying is the growth of incompetence in leadership. The events of the past few months in the USA seem to epitomise this. When this is combined with the lack of vision I worry even more.

“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

I knew the quote and I was writing this letter I decided to see where it was from. The answer is James Freeman Clarke (April 4, 1810 – June 8, 1888) an American theologian and author. There do not seem to be any great works by him but lots of very good quotes.

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A Series of Mild ‘Winter’ Days

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.

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Montreal

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).

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The Meaning of Life

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.

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Sun and sea (with showers)

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;

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Farewells and Coincidences

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!

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Slush and wind and rain

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.

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