The Misty Murky Mornings

I had not been in Waterloo for long when I was at a meeting on a very foggy day. I looked out of the window and declaimed:

“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”

This is from John Keats’ poem To Autumn, published in 1820. Everyone looked at me blankly. Doesn’t everyone know the romantic poets? Evidently not! My mind is a bin of snatches of poems and quotes. I can’t always quote them entirely accurately, but I do generally have something appropriate.

There is so much going on around the world that it is hard to know where to start. Britain remains on the edge of a cliff as the Brexit process continues to falter and stutter. So far Theresa May lost three crucial votes and was replaced by Boris Johnson. At the weekend, on 19th September, in an exceptional Saturday sitting, he lost the first vote seeking approval for his ‘deal’. I am not sure that anyone knows what is going to happen. I hoped that by the time I posted my monthly blog, things might be clearer. This does not seem to be the case, and the only credible way forward is to take the decision back to the country, either in a general election or a second referendum.

My sources of information are BBC World News and the occasional dip into the Canadian Broadcasting Service. Canada had an election for the Federal Government on the 21st September. The main parties were the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, the governing party going into the election; the Conservatives, led by Andrew Sheer, an oleaginous individual; the New Democrat Party (NDP), whose leader is a Sikh complete with turban (which he could not wear as a public servant in secular Quebec); and the Greens, lead by a faintly desperate looking woman. There is also Bloc Québécois (BQ) which advocates for Quebec nationalism and sovereignty. They are not a force outside Quebec. Interestingly, like the DUP in the British Parliament, they had 10 seats before the vote, but 34 after the polls closed. Finally there is the small The People’s Party of Canada, a splinter group similar to The Brexit Party in the UK.

I watched the results come in. The process was amazing as the CBC had excellent hi-tech coverage down to individual polling stations. This meant they were able to call results before all the constituency polls had been counted – although they did warn that these were preliminary tallies. The final outcome was 157 seats for the Liberals, 121 for the Conservatives, 32 for the Bloc, 24 for the NDP, three for the Greens and one Independent. Ironically the Conservatives got the most votes at 34.4%; Liberals’ at 33.1%; The New Democrats took 15.9% of the vote, followed by the Bloc at 7.7%, the Greens at 6.5% and the People’s Party at 1.6%. Of course there are more tiny parties, but none should be taken very seriously. It is clear that there will be a minority or coalition government. No bad thing in my opinion. Equally the green vote did not translate into seats!

Around the world from Lebanon to Chile, Barcelona to Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest against governments. Unfortunately these events frequently turn violent, but it should be noted that, at the time of writing, there have been few deaths. This is very striking and suggests restraint on the part of everyone, authorities and protestors alike. The reasons for the increase in protests range from climate change (which is having an insidious but serious impact) to unemployment to global anomie. This is, to my mind, the key concept. As originally developed by Émile Durkheim it is

“a social condition in which there is a disintegration or disappearance of the norms and values that were previously common to the society”

We have to respond to this upheaval, and not with repression.

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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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“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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Dark November brings the fog (Flanders and Swann ‘A Song of the Weather’)

November was bifurcated for me: the first half in Waterloo and the second in Norwich. I was fortunate in that I left Canada before it became consistently and miserably cold. Unfortunately, while Norwich is warmer, it has been grey, dank and damp. In both locations, when the sun shines in winter it can be quite magical. An interesting fact: there is almost exactly an hour more sunshine in Waterloo than there is Norwich. The sun rises at about the same ‘local’ time; at present 07:15ish, but sets an hour later in Waterloo. We still have three weeks to go to the solstice! The travel to the UK was partly paid for by AIDSpan the Nairobi based NGO that produces the Global Fund Observer. I am on the board and we met in London. It was a great meeting since all is well with the organisation.

The UK is preoccupied by Brexit. During the time I have been here there has been constant, but not very helpful, discussion. Theresa May has managed to negotiate an exit agreement, which was agreed on the 25th November. She still has to get this through Parliament. Once (if) that happens, then the real negotiations start. We briefly thought the issue of Gibraltar would derail the process, but that crisis was averted. Currently fishing rights are being flagged as deal-breaking. The United Kingdom has an exceptionally long coast line and hence extensive territorial waters. Brexit is exceptionally depressing; we are giving away the future.

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September in steamy Waterloo

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.

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Politics: Britain Votes and Canada Celebrates 150 Years

On the 8th of June Britain went to the polls. Theresa May called an early election in the expectation that she would strengthen her hand ahead of the Brexit negotiations. In her mind she would be returned to power with an increased majority. Two months ahead of the election the press was united in the view that this would happen, and the Labour Party, under the leadership of the demonised Jeremy Corbyn, would be crushed. Well that did not materialise. The Tories (Conservatives) won just 317 seats, and as there are 650 seats in the House of Commons this is not a majority. Labour gained 30 seats, giving them 262. It is now generally felt the winners lost and the losers won.

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On The Road and Looking Back

It has been busy. I left Waterloo at the end of June heading back to the unexpected UK Brexit vote. It was quite unbelievable, this means Scotland will certainly seek independence and I would not be surprised if Wales and Northern Ireland don’t follow suit. The reason for being in England was the first ever Whiteside family gathering, organised in North Walsham, the town where my father was born on the 27th July 1899. The initiative to have this gathering came from my 82 year old half-sister Pat de Pury. Continue reading

Heavy Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off

The heading of this blog was the headline in the London Times on October 22, 1957. At least, when I Googled the source, that is what the Harvard International Review of summer 2012 alleged. With results of the referendum now in, it feels as though the island has now cut itself from Europe, and done so willingly. I will return to this later in the blog.

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