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.

It is nearly the end of January 2023 and I have not written and posted for over six weeks. I did write an annual roundup, which was posted with my 2022 Christmas cards, in envelopes, with stamps! So here goes, the first blog of 2023, and it covers the events of the last part of my South African trip in 2022, and brings me up to date!

I was in Durban up to the 8th of December 2022 and then went to Cape Town. I spent a few nights at a hotel near the Waterfront. For the second part of the visit I went to stay with Derek, my brother, at their family home in Hout Bay on the peninsula. Unfortunately, Lynn, his wife, was in the UK visiting her parents, but two of the three daughters, Kate and Sarah were there. It was good to have a chance to connect with them as they have busy lives in the UK.

It was also an opportunity to hook up with old friends from school days. Derek generously hosted a braai for David Crush and the Figov brothers. I had seen David Crush a few times over the last year, most recently in London at the memorial service for Adrian Bowen. This was also attended by Harry. He (Harry) and his brother Sean attended Waterford school in Swaziland. Harry was a year below me and Sean about three years. Their journey was from Northern Zambia, a considerable distance for two unaccompanied young boys. I had not seen Sean since 1975, nearly 50 years. It is striking how easy it is to pick up with people one knew as children or teenagers, and the shared Waterford experience makes it even easier. The brothers were in Cape Town for the melancholy process of sorting out their late father’s apartment.

Derek was good enough to do a few touristy things with me. We went to Boulders Beach, the home of a colony of African penguins. What I did not know is that the birds only established the colony in 1982. It is the only place the birds nest on the mainland. The two pairs have grown to about 2000. It is noisy and smelly, but I much appreciated the chance to visit again. Unfortunately, I’d left my ID book behind so I had to pay international rates to get in! We had intended to lunch in the village of Scarborough and stopped at a restaurant, unfortunately the serving staff were completely unconvincing: disorganised and uninterested. The food at the nearby Imhoff Farm was excellent.

On my last afternoon Derek, Kate and I went to one of the outstanding Constantia wine estates, a short drive away. There we sampled a variety of wines and had absolutely excellent cheese to go with it. It was interesting to see how quickly the tourist industry is rebounding, and also who the tourists are. In the little mall in Hout Bay the majority seemed to be older, leathery (post-retirement) Germans. I was waiting for Kate in the mobile phone shop and every customer was a bewildered German, trying to either get their phone to work, or to understand what contract they had bought.

At the wine estate there were people of every nationality, but with a significant number of South Africans. The range of nationalities is good, but there was little racial diversity, the serving staff are black or coloured, the tourists white. I was able to ask a number of the staff, here and elsewhere, what their pandemic experiences had been. Some in the service industry were fortunate in that their employers tried to pay, at the minimum, survival wages. The driver who picked me up from the airport had, pre-Covid, a thriving shuttle business with four vehicles. She had to sell three of them to survive and was trying to rebuild her operations. There are encouraging signs that this is happening.

I flew back to Norwich after a week in Cape Town. The route is second nature, KLM to Amsterdam and then the short hop to Norwich. Although the flight left on the 14th, it was only just as it took off at 00h40. KLM is unique in that they make good use of their fleet. They don’t fly to South Africa then have the planes spend hours on the tarmac, so all the journeys to Europe (from Joburg and Cape Town) are overnight. I managed to negotiate for a middle seat with the one next to me blocked!

Back in England the first part of January was mild, but that changed on the 17th when we woke to a hard frost. The weather forecast for the week ahead is very cold, the temperature not rising above 3 or 4°C. One of my Christmas presents was a minimum and maximum thermometer. The coldest it has been, so far this year, was -4.2°C on the night of the 16th January. The house has two wood/coal burning stoves and one of my duties is to build the fire and then clean out the ashes. It is certainly being used in this cold spell. We had a chimney sweep come for the necessary maintenance today.

One of the ways I decide what to read is by reading reviews. I read a review of the book ‘Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death’ by Richard Holloway (Canongate, 2019). He was Bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 to 2000 and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church from 1992 to 2000. It looked very interesting and so I ordered it through the interlibrary loan system. What a curious book, Holloway makes a very good case for there being no God and not much place for faith. It was certainly not what I expected. I can strongly recommend it as a thoughtful reflection. It made me think, and suggests my opinions are not completely nuts.

On the other hand, what is reported in the news is insane. It has been nearly a year since the Russians invaded Ukraine. Twelve months ago, we were listening to reports of increasing tension. I am shocked to look back and think that I did not consider it remotely possible that Putin would unleash his forces. How wrong I and many others were. What is troubling though is that I don’t know how it will end. In the UK the current Tory government is completely tone deaf and the levels of poverty and desperation are ever increasing. However they have a significant majority and have no need to go to the country until 2024. If, at that election, there is not a considerable change I will despair.

In this context, and by contrast, a Sunday paper carried a story about a seal in a fishing lake in Essex. Apparently, it found its way there from a local river and, so far, shows no sign of wanting to return to the sea. ‘The British Divers Marine Life Rescue said the seal needed to be caught for its own welfare but was happily eating the fish in the lake.’ The reporter wrote ‘A seal trapped in a fishing lake has “found himself in a branch of Waitrose” and has no incentive to escape’. Well, I thought, what do you expect! But this tunnel vision is reflected in other ways. According to the UK giving report, ‘Animal welfare continued to be the most popular with 27% of donors giving to this cause in the past four weeks’.

I am deeply immersed in writing a ‘memoir’. I feel I have had both an interesting and incredibly fortunate life and want to try to make sense of it. So far, I have written about 20,000 words, covering my life up to the age of 12. I hope it is not self-indulgent claptrap. I have little expectation of publishing it commercially, but I have really enjoyed going through memories and, with the help of the internet, being able to research some fascinating events. Who would have thought my father was involved in a military action against Faqir of Ipi on the North West Frontier of India in the 1940s! I may start posting chapters along with the monthly blogs.

Pandemics and travels

It has been an inordinately long time since I last posted to my website. A lot has happened. In early July I travelled from Durban to Cape Town for a few days, seeing friends and staying with Derek and Lynn (my brother and wife). On Sunday 10th July I flew from Cape Town back to Norwich via Amsterdam. By Thursday I had a scratchy throat, headache, cough, and a metallic taste in my mouth. A day later I tested positive for Covid-19. The virus I had written so much about got me! I was not seriously ill, but it was not pleasant. I am convinced I was infected in an airport or on a plane.

I was due to travel to Montreal for the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting ahead of the International AIDS Conference on Monday 25th July. Although I do not believe I was infectious, travelling seemed unwise. I was very relieved to consistently test negative in the days before I flew. At one point I thought my attendance was in doubt which would have been difficult for my colleagues as we were co-organising a meeting.

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Reconnecting with the country

Earlier this month I did a six-day road trip from Cape Town to Durban. My travelling companion was an old friend: a gaunt, chain smoking (when he had the chance and not in the car, hotels or restaurants), grey haired academic, who shall be called Sancho, after Don Quixote’ Sancho Panza, he was going to remain nameless, but that did not work. We have been friends for over 35 years, having originally met on the touch rugby field in Durban in the 1980s. The game took place, once a week, for well over 20 years. It was ‘the left’ at play, and some deep long-term friendships developed.

I am not going to make this a ‘traditional’ travelogue, so let me quickly get the description of the trip out of the way. I will put in the links throughout.

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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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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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Driving and relaxing

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.

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Writer’s Block

I wish I knew a more productive way of writing than my current style. At the moment it seems that I allow deadlines to creep up on me, and then there is a period of frenetic activity before the article, blog, book or whatever is submitted. I never feel completely satisfied. This is hypocritical, given that the advice I give my students is: “done is good enough”. One thing that became clear over the last few weeks is that I do my best work with other people. I was very fortunate last month in that Gemma Oberth, whose Ph.D. I examined some years ago, and who now lives and works in Cape Town, asked if she could come and spend a period of time writing with me. She was visiting her parents in Toronto and so it was a simple matter for her to travel up to Waterloo. (Having said that though, travelling from Toronto to Waterloo is never a simple matter, the traffic can be horrendous.) This was absolutely great. We were able to settle down, plan out an article, do the research, and actually get close to a final draft. We then exchanged versions over email and submitted it to a journal within a week of her departure. It now goes out to peer review and I will be interested to see what the reviewers think of it. Personally I found this method of writing to be easier than most.

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Spring in Durban and Cape Town and Autumn in Norwich

Spring in Durban and Cape Town and Autumn in Norwich

This is the second posting to go up in a short time. The management of my website has moved to John Price. I want to say a big thank you to Shela McCullough and Linda Mtambo of HEARD for all that they did to keep my posts flowing! By early next year we will have looked at the design of the site and changed it. I hope to make it somewhat interactive.

I was in the UK and South Africa in late September and early October. The first part of the trip was covered in my last posting. This one is about Durban, Cape Town and Norwich. After 24 hours in Durban (a silly side trip because I was not paying attention to my travel plans), I flew to Cape Town for a Health Systems Symposium. These meetings are held every two years, this was the third, the first I had been to. As all my South African family lives in Cape Town and the environs I was able to see them. My visits to the South Africa will become less frequent in the years ahead, so this is important to me.

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The Final Post of the Year and ‘last post’ from Durban

This is the last posting to be written in my incarnation of Director of HEARD. It is a time of change, and the passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has really shaken the country and me. It is taking time for this to sink in, but I will try to write about it.

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July: America, Americans and wonderful Durban winter

July: America, Americans and wonderful Durban winter

I flew from the United Kingdom to Durban on Monday, 11 June. It was the long daylight flight from Amsterdam so as well as working I saw the film  Warhorse. After an overnight stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in Johannesburg and I flew to Durban on Tuesday. I went straight to the office and got a lift home at the end of the day. The next morning was an early start, I went back to Johannesburg, met up with colleagues from the British Department for International Development’s (DFID) office in Pretoria. We drove down to Swaziland where we spend 24 hours in meetings talking about a possible regional HIV and AIDS program. This included a dinner with members of Swazi civil society.

I had less than a week in Durban and then headed for Florence for a UNICEF meeting. On the Wednesday I flew out on the Air France A380, the biggest plane in the world (and it is quite fantastic), to Paris and changed for the flight to Italy. I was rather exhausted when I got in and so slept for part of the day before going out and wandering around the city. The weather was perfect, and it is without doubt one of the most spectacular cities I know. The two day meeting on child well-being was deeply interesting. We finished at about three o’clock on Saturday and I headed for the airport to get back to Paris, Johannesburg and Durban. The EUFA cup game between France and Italy was being broadcast in the lounge. I was the only one who cheered when Italy scored – and they won. I had one night in Durban and then flew to Cape Town to visit the Children’s Institute.

In Cape Town I managed to both deliver a birthday present to my niece in Hout Bay and meet up with my uncle, aunt, cousins and second cousins for dinner. Uncle Fred was one of those people who was an absolute role model for me. He and June live in a retirement home in Pinelands just outside Cape Town. They originally bought two units expecting to be allocated ones adjacent to each other so they could create a decent living space. The elderly lady who owned the one changed her mind about moving. They spent at least a year living in two separate apartments on two floors. When the lady died they were finally able to consolidate. I knew the whole story and happened to be visiting on the day that they got the news of the woman’s death. I am afraid that my reaction was:

“Oh good now you can settle in properly”, which is exactly what they have done.

The University of Cape Town put me up in a nearby guest house. After checking in and having a shower I went back to the reception and took a manager to my room to point out all the things that were wrong with it. These ranged from the steps into the room without a guard railing, actually quite dangerous; through to blankets on the bed – good establishments have duvets which can be washed between every guest, that doesn’t happen with blankets; a faulty shower and a number of other minor issues that were annoying. It was a rather twee establishment and they had a blackboard in the reception area with a quote on it, something like “happiness is a state of mind” and as I walked past it with the manager I pointed out that happiness only has only one ‘p’. Afterwards I thought ‘and so does pedantic’.

I then had less than two weeks in Durban before heading back to the United Kingdom and on to Washington for the international AIDS conference. It was very busy. The buzz in the office, as people prepare for the conference: writing papers, making posters, planning the stand, sending material  and generally getting ready, is exciting and rewarding. HEARD will have a significant contingent and it will be great to see how they do. Probably the best part of my job is seeing people grow and develop.

I was invited to the United States Consulate General’s home, along with several hundred other people to mark the 4th July. He, sensibly, arranged parking at a primary school down the hill and had a shuttle bus taking people to the house. There was a significant police presence as the guests included the provincial premier, various members of his cabinet, the American ambassador, King Zwelithini and other dignitaries. I decided to walk back to my car. Two Metro Police driving past saw me strolling down the hill. They knew where I had been, and asked if I wanted a lift. I have not yet been in the back of a police car and did not feel this was an appropriate time to start so thanked them very much and walked on. I slightly regret this now.

I was planning to return to Norwich on Tuesday. Our university decided to migrate our e-mail system to Microsoft outlook over the weekend. On Monday and Tuesday there were to be teams going around our campus ensuring that the changeover went smoothly. It did not! My PA spent most of Monday at the walk-in center with my laptop trying to get it set up to work on the new system. On Tuesday I went down with her and we kidnapped one of the technical people and brought him back up to the offices to try and sort things out. It took nearly all day. The level of stress was considerable and I correctly made a call that it would be better to delay travel by a day and ensure that I had all the technology that I would need for the next month. It does seem to be working now.

Coming through Amsterdam I had a really pleasant surprise. I used the business class lounge shower, and emerged wearing nice fresh clothes and feeling clean to bump into Father Michael Kelly, a Jesuit priest from Lusaka. He was a really critical part of our AIDS and education work 12 years ago. Apart from being a fantastically nice and thoughtful person he is an individual who I admire and who has mentored me over the years. He is now 83 so these encounters are extremely valuable and need to be savored. We had about 45 minutes to talk before he went off to catch his plane. He is one of the unsung heroes of the fight against AIDS, a most compassionate sensible man.

 The next posting will be after the Washington conference. There will be a great deal of activity on the HEARD website though – www.heard.org.za so you can follow events there.

 Films and books

Warhorse. The story of a horse Joey, requisitioned at the beginning of the First World War from a farm in Devon. The son of the farm, Albert, joins up. Towards the end of the war Joey, after being captured and ‘serving’ the German forces, gets caught up in the wire in no-man’s land. He is released by a German and British soldier in moment of armistice. He is to be put down but is reunited with Albert. The children’s book is by Michael Morpurgo was first published in 1982. The film was directed by Steven Spielberg. It is a moving story and is beautifully made. It is also complex and sometimes there seemed too many subplots for me to entirely follow. The message is war is hell!

A Thousand Words.  This was billed as a comedy drama starring Eddy Murphy. It is a simple tale of an literary agent who is cursed by words. It was badly reviewed, and deservedly so. However on the 23.20 flight from Johannesburg it was watchable and I saw the last 30 minutes over breakfast so did not feel it was wasted time. There are other films on the KLM flights I am looking forward to seeing.

Random Violence by Jassy MacKenzie, Umuzi, Houghton, 2008 238 pages. This is a novel set in and around Johannesburg that has been on my selves for some time. I found it, initially, very difficult to get into. However I persisted and was pleased I did. I hope that she writes more. She has the potential to develop into another good South African crime writer. The end is a bit too much ‘and with one bound he was free’ but in general it was believable, well observed and well plotted. It is set in the period leading up to the World Cup and MacKenzie catches the nation’s mood very well. The heroine is a private detective named Jade de Jong, the daughter of murdered white senior policeman, who returns to SA after 10 years away and gets caught up in a complex plot involving property development and crime.