The Role of the Fool

It is about a month since I last put anything on the website so this is timely. I travelled from Durban to Norwich early in May. The main reason was Douglas’s 18th birthday on 9 May, hard to believe that time has passed so quickly. I managed many other events and meetings. The first was a seminar on the ‘Political Economy and Social Drivers of the Epidemic’ held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. There was a public meeting the day before the main seminar and I was invited to present, along with Hein Marias, a South African colleague, who has written widely and wisely in this area. It was a smallish meeting and a chance to interact with a group of mostly United Kingdom-based academics. Perhaps the major lesson was we are still not taking enough notice of the political impact of AIDS. Obviously the epidemic is not homogenous and it will not have the same effect in every country, but it does have an important, and usually, ignored political impact. All the other meetings in the past month have reaffirmed this view.

After a few days in Norwich I flew to Berlin for a conference on Financing for Health and Social Protection. The title was: ‘A Global Social Protection Scheme – Moving from Charity to Solidarity’. It was organised by a friend of mine, Gorik Ooms, who is currently at the University of Antwerp. Among other things I was one of the examiners for his PhD, and he came on a course in Durban over 10 years ago. The main sponsors were Medico International and the Hélène de Beir Foundation with two  German Funders: Deutshe Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (more easily known as giz) and Bundesministerium für wirsschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Enteicklung (the Foreign Ministry, I think). These names are dreadfully long.

The idea being put forward is to develop a global compact to provide a basic level of social protection, as a right, to everyone across the world. It is a most interesting, but probably very difficult to sell, idea. The key point Gorik makes is, while today the rich world would expect to provide support to the poor, in years to come the situation might be that countries such as Brazil might be providing support to others. It works on the principle that the poor are not going to always be with us. This, of course, goes against many deep beliefs about how we operate. The Christian hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ included a verse.

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

He made them, high or lowly,

And ordered their estate.

The website where I got this, says of this stanza: “Most hymnals omit the following verse.” It points to the concept that wealth and poverty are divinely predetermined. Then there is the question of whether we need to feel better than people around us, materially and spiritually. Nonetheless I think there are very good arguments for the universal social protection and I shall, in my small way, be supportive of it. There is a role for people like Gorik to be bold and imaginative. The concept of the Fool in the medieval court was an individual who could tell truth to power, all the while in the guise of humour and fun. King Lear, which I studied for my ‘A’ levels, has a Fool who plays the role of commentator on the events around him. I think it is a part I play on occasion, certainly humour is important in messaging.

It is standard practice with meetings and conferences for there to be some kind of outing: a reward to the participants for their involvement. In Berlin this was a trip on the river through the centre of the city. We got on one of the tourist riverboats and went up and down the river for a couple of hours. There was food on the boat, German cuisine at its best, and this included sauerkraut, which I am very fond of, and plenty to drink. Perhaps the most striking thing was the remnants of the Berlin Wall. In one place, where the river had constituted the border between East and West, there were a number of crosses painted on the wall to commemorate those shot while trying to swim to freedom, very poignant.

On Sunday 20 May I flew to Toronto and was taken to the town of Waterloo. This part of Canada was mainly settled by Germans: Mennonites and Lutherans. The next town was originally called Berlin, but in 1916 the patriotic Canadians changed the name, calling it Kitchener after the British general who was Secretary of State for War. They turned their backs on the German heritage – but today it has (apparently) one of the best Oktoberfest’s in Canada. I will say more about this trip in a future posting. The town has two universities: Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier and is only about an hour and 20 minutes away from the international airport at Toronto, along an excellent road network. This was a pleasant surprise because I had thought it was a long way. I got back to Norwich on the Thursday and, as is usual with these transatlantic trips, it took me about a day to catch up with myself.

Then it was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee! This was marked in a number of ways: in London there was a river pageant, concert, service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s and procession through the city. It was marked in the provinces by street parties and various festivities organised by the local communities, cities and counties. Many places were supposed to have street parties but sadly the weather was rotten: raining and cold. I watched the river pageant and was hugely impressed by the level of organisation, the number of boats and the sheer spectacle including many events on the banks as the royal barge passed by. That really was about all I saw of the whole thing. It struck me that the level of public involvement was rather lower than normal (and than expected). While the Queen is hugely respected, with good reason, the rest of the Royal family is rather letting her down. I hope she enjoyed it.

I went down to London on the second of the two public holidays, 5 June; to help run a meeting for the Rush Foundation This website is well worth looking at. Rush is a new foundation focused on funding disruptive, innovative ideas in the fight against HIV in Africa. The founders, Marina Galanti and Kim Duncan, set out to ‘provide fast, effective funding for alternative ideas to address the pandemic and its social effects’. They have, in two short years, managed a number of innovative initiatives.

The meeting was set up to ask: What is ‘A new economic framework for better HIV decision making in sub-Saharan Africa’? The basic underlying premise is there will have to be choices made on how to deploy money, especially in the context of declining resources. When we started thinking about who to invite to such an event we made a list of people we really wanted to see there. We sent out the invitations and to my delighted amazement nearly everyone accepted. We had Sir Roy Anderson from Imperial College giving the keynote speech. Peter Piot the current head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and former executive director of  UNAIDS and Paul Collier of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University gave the opening presentations. Nearly everyone stayed for the full two days (as they should have). Careful planning meant that each person had something to do: presenting, chairing or reporting. Round tables also worked in ensuring engagement. The catering was the best I have had a meeting, not stodgy and very tasty. Even the coffee was reasonable.

The calibre of participants was exceptional and international. I was particularly delighted that there was representation from Swaziland, South Africa and Botswana. Everyone was invited in their personal capacities rather than representing institutions. The background paper, written by Chris Desmond who began his working career at HEARD, was excellent. The venue was the Royal Geographical Society, located opposite to Kensington Gardens. The room we used had a scale model of Mount Everest and the surrounding peaks. In addition there were photographs and portraits of explorers of earlier eras on the wall. It was a great place. I was pleased with the outcome of the meeting. There were both innovative and important new ideas, including some which can be put into action soon; it will be good to see some quick wins.

Our outing for this meeting was amazing and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to beat it. It was to go to the Royal Opera House in Covent Gardens to see the Royal Ballet performing ‘The Prince of the Pagodas’, choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and music by Benjamin Britten. This is the first full-length professional ballet I have ever seen. It was an amazing experience and we were treated like royalty. We arrived early and were given a backstage tour, taken to a private area for drinks, and our glasses were refilled in both the intervals. After the event we had a sit down dinner with members of the cast. There were two cast members on my table – one of whom had played the Fool. In the ballet his role is to orchestrate the events for the principles. The venue was plush and wonderful, there are some new bits and they have been well designed and built.

Details of the ballet can be found on Wikipedia (of course), and there are not very kind reviews in the press- the Independent’s here. Reading the review it struck me the reviewers know a huge amount about the art of ballet and the scores and their complaints are with Britten more than the cast and directors. However I thought it was amazing. The director of the Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason, joined us for dinner. Apart from having been with the company for 54 years (she retires in a few months), and being completely elegant and gracious, she was born in Johannesburg and came to London with her family to dance at the age of 16. The whole event: meeting, accommodation and outing were so well organised and it was an intellectual treat as well.

Films Reviews

The long haul flights to Canada gave me a chance to catch up with films.

Iron Lady

The story of Margaret Thatcher. In it she is shown as an old lady and it is a series of flash backs. As I lived through a part of the Thatcher Government it was most interesting to see this interpretation of the time. She took power in 1979 and was Prime Minister until 1990. I was in Botswana during the Falklands War (and my view was that of course they had to be taken back, but this was not everyone’s feeling). It was rumoured that when Argentine invaded the Islands the British High Commission was told to open their safe and take out a particular envelope. When it in turn was opened it had instructions on ‘what to do if the Falklands are invaded’. Meryl Streep is excellent as Thatcher especially the portrayal of the struggle with dementia; she deservedly got an Oscar for the part. It is actually quite sad to reflect how old age can, but not necessarily, rob a person of independence and a place in life.  Richard E Grant from Waterford and Swaziland had a part in the film.

J Edgar

A second movie about a powerful individual, this is the story of J Edgar Hoover who set up the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, having been director of the Bureau of Investigation the predecessor to the FBI from 1924. He died, in harness in 1972 aged 77. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Part of the plot was the possible gay relationship between Hoover and his deputy; this was more than hinted at in the film. We learn from the film that Hoover’s mother was anti-gay and this clearly had a deep impact on him. The story of the Lindberg baby kidnapping was presented as one of the main reasons the FBI gained so much power through the use of science to track down and convict the kidnapper.  I found it a deeply fascinating story, but troubling to see how power can become the end rather than the means, and how, once it is entrenched, it is so hard to shift.

Taxis In Holland And Germany And Smiles At Airports

I begin with taxi cab experiences in Holland and Germany, destinations in late September. I spent two days in The Hague in Holland for a meeting of The AIDS, Security and Conflict Initiative (ASCI) a research project convened by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and the US Social Science Research Council. The final report and other information are on the web at
The flight from Norwich to Amsterdam is about 35 minutes if KLM uses their Fokker F70 jet and 55 minutes if the aircraft is smaller, creaky, propeller driven Fokker F50. That is a name to the company probably regretted when they became an international brand, but as they went bankrupt in 1997 it not that relevant. Getting the train from the airport was not easy as it seems the Dutch railway system does not accept most major credit or debit cards and the machines need coins for most tickets.

The meeting was being held at a hotel in Scheveningen, an attractive seaside resort just north of The Hague so I took a cab to the hotel. It isn’t far and there are trams, but when one does not know a city it is easiest to be driven. The taxi drivers I had were all young, foreign men, (sample 3, 100% accurate.) The first driver told me he worked two jobs and wanted to complete his education. He spent the entire journey telling me how tough his life is; how many of his passengers are mentally disturbed (presumably when they get into the cab because I could well understand it if they got out feeling unsettled); and finally how dangerous it is to be a cab driver in Holland. He took the view that drivers should be in cages and have cameras in the cabs for additional security. A depressing experience!

The second cabby drove far too fast. As this was from the hotel to the station, I can only assume he thought, correctly, that I had a train to catch. But the trains leave every 15 minutes so it was quite unnecessary. He went through at least two red lights leaving in his wake, numbers of shocked and shaken cyclists. In the end, I asked him to slow down which rather surprised him, commenting on taxi drivers’ skills is a no-no.

By contrast, the drivers in Berlin were fast, did not speak English, and drove safely. There was a degree of precision and accuracy to their driving which was, well, Germanic. It was easy and cheap to use the U-Bahn and the bus in Berlin. I managed to negotiate both. On the Saturday I caught the airport bus from the romantically named boulevard, ‘Unter-den-Linden’, to Tegel airport, very simple and comfortable. Not being able to get on an earlier flight, I sat in the lounge and edited an article. That was boring but productive. Two loud Americans came in and talked about their Blackberries and families in that order!

On the journey from the Hague I also ended up spending a couple of hours at the airport, Schipol this time. The check-in was supposed to be self-service. The automatic passport reader did not like my passport so I was obliged to enter details manually. I managed this until it asked for the first three letters of the home country. So, what was it to be? ENG (for England) or GRE (for Great Britain) or indeed UNI , (United Kingdom) Naturally, it was the last of the three options. Before I solved it I turned to a KLM staff member and asked for help. She was talking to two other passenger and the following conversation ensued.

“Hang on” she said, “I can only do one thing at a time.”
“I thought women could multi task.” I teased her.
“No.” she responded, “Only knitting and talking!”

In the departure area, the microphones were not working, so the person on duty had to round up all the passengers by shouting across the hall. It was clearly a day of equipment failure. Still, the plane did take off on time and so was into Norwich 20 minutes early. It really was a beautiful day to be in the air: clear and sunny with the whole of Norfolk spread out below us at its best. I managed to spot Coltishall Airfield, an old Royal Air force base. I now recognise it as a useful landmark before coming into Norwich from the North when I am in the flying school plane. Really interesting! Now I have to start working at spotting it from the other side.

The trip to Berlin was to a talk to a sub-group of the German Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and also to GTZ on of the main German aid giving bodies. Berlin is such an interesting city. One of the striking things is how little of ‘The Wall’ is left, and what there is, is rotting, with concrete falling off and steel reinforcing rods exposed. My assigned seat was 6C and next to me was a German woman, Cordelia Marten, who is one of two or three people running an art book company owned by a friend of hers. What an interesting position, the idea is to take artists out more broadly into society and to the public. It is better than one person having a one picture on a wall or a gallery which depends on people coming in. It is also highly specialised. It fitted very neatly into my books read and reviewed category at the end of this news.

The company has a great website and the books are in both English and German. The one I found most interesting on the site was by Michael John Whelan, ‘RED SKY MORNING’, Berlin 2009, So often I feel extraordinarily privileged to travel and meet such a range of out-of-the-ordinary people that I learn from.

I have just three weeks of sabbatical left. It has been good to be in Norwich through a spring, summer and now an autumn. The garden has been magnificent although at the moment it is terribly dry. Despite the general view of England as a constantly damp isle we have not seen rain for at least six weeks.

As I prepare to leave my final reflections are flying and the range of wildlife that this patch of garden attracts. The weather has been perfect for spiders and there are webs in every location that will support one. It seems unlikely that there is enough insect life to keep them all going. Perhaps they become cannibals, although my experiments of introducing one spider to another’s web show the intruder scurries off as fast its eight legs will carry it. (Sample 2 confidence 100%).

The pond beside the shed has been home to a batch of fearsome mosquitoes. Mowing the lawn the other evening I was really bitten. I could actually feel each bite, and as the little beast got caught in the hair on my legs I was able to kill them, but that was cold comfort. The result of the bite, even interrupted by death, was great itchy wheals (sample 5, and two spider’s bites, the difference being a black spot at the centre of the spider bite and not as irritable). The pond has also been home to tadpoles. At the moment there are at least big frogs living in it, when I went round this morning there were three plops as they leapt in. Curiously if they are in the water they feel confident enough to sit with their head out and watch me, but if they are outside they want to get in as fast as they can.

More flying stories September 2009

It has been a frustrating few weeks as far as flying goes. I booked a lesson a couple of Sundays ago. I went to the Flying School (this sounds grand, but is just an office with a white board at the end of one on the runways) for my pre-flight briefing. My instructor warned me that it was rather windy and we might not be able to fly, but we went ahead. This lesson was to be about low flying, higher than 500 feet but less than 1000. (One of the rules of flying is that you should not go nearer than 500 feet of a person animal or vehicle).

After the briefing we went out to the plane and on to the next step which is the pre-flight check list. This takes me about 15 minutes, and includes opening the engine cowlings and checking for dead birds. This done we got into the plane, did the next checks, started the engine and taxied to the end of the runway. At the holding point the instructor called the tower to get the latest weather and clearance for take-off. The wind strength had increased and so he decided that we should not fly. The main reason is if anything went wrong the insurance would be invalid. Flying is about margins and making sure they are as wide as possible. On the whole I fully approve of this.

The school does not charge when this happens, so effectively I got an hour and half of time and 20 minutes taxiing. This was no bad thing because I have finally mastered that to a degree. The moment that made a difference was realizing how the plane is steered. There are two peddles on the floor that control the rudder (a bit on the tail which turns left and right). They also control the nose wheel which I had not understood! It made a huge difference to me to realize that what I was doing with my feet had an immediate effect just in front of me, rather than being transmitted to the tail and then effecting the angle of the plane – or something. Also, and I don’t know if this is only true of the Piper or if it is the case with most small planes, the controls require a lot of effort to make them work at low speed. If you think of a car without power steering, and how much exertion it takes to turn the steering wheel when it is stationary, you have a sense of what I have to do.

My sense of frustration was that I could not do what I wanted, for the instructor it meant no pay! The reason for becoming an instructor for younger men is to build up the hours of flying to allow them to get commercial licenses. If they don’t fly they don’t get paid and it is pretty minimum wages for them anyway. I think I am going to have to give this plane a name as it seems to becoming a part of my life. If you have moment, look at the picture and give me your nomination. It is a Piper Tomahawk, as they say ‘ideas on a postcard please’.

Books and things 

Chris Anderson ‘The Longer Long Tail‘ Business Books 2006, 267 pages

This is about the fact that there are a few hits and then many other products. The essence is niche interests have come together on a global scale and create a substantial market. The author (editor of ‘Wired’ begins with the effects of the internet. The simple version of his argument is if you lower the cost of production and distribution you can offer more variety and if this happens people will start to look for the product that most closely meets their needs. The best example at the moment are the media products available on the internet. One key point is this does not mean the end of hits, there will still be the big blockbuster films, but there may be fewer of them and not as big. The major issue that he does not address is around quality. There are some products that need investment otherwise quality suffers. In other words there is a level at which what is good cannot be left to the market.

A movie recommendation in this letter District 9 is a South African film that is full of dark humour and is really astutely observed. I took Douglas and a friend and we all enjoyed it. I wont say more- other than do go see it, and the website