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.

Sancho picked me up on Friday. We drove from Cape Town to his home in a small town some 180 kilometres away. We spent two nights there gathering ourselves for the trip. The brief description of the journey is: on the first day we drove to De Rust on the edge of the Karoo; on the second to Nieu-Bethesda; then on to Lady Gray on the Lesotho border; our final night on the road was spent in Clarens in the Free State; and finally, we drove down to Durban. It was a wonderful trip. We drove more than 2000 km, over six days, and were in the car for over 21 hours. Although we tried not to do too much car time on any one day, the road conditions operated against us.

The highlights were seeing old friends, excellent accommodation, spectacular sights and outstanding food and drink. The Cape wines are quite breathtaking. Before we set off on the main journey, we spent a day visiting two vineyards in the Stanford area. The Raka Wines were quite magnificent.

On day one we stopped in Swellendam to visit David and Felicity Schlapobersky at their pottery. We last saw each other in 1970 at Waterford School in Swaziland and they had no notice that we were going to stop by. Felicity saw us arrive and called David who walked out and said, “Alan Whiteside, how long has it been”. I think I too would have recognized him despite the years. It was amazing to simply catch-up as though it was yesterday, although we are now white beards.

Alan and David

Whiskers, Alan and David (Swellendam, June 2022)

A Dassie or Rock Hyrax

More whiskers: a Dassie or Rock Hyrax

Although the meeting with Mike Schraam in Lady Grey was supposedly for business, we had a great time. He is the managing editor and owner of the African Journal of AIDS Research and I am the editor-in-chief. We have worked together for many years, and it was great to connect with him. The reason we met in Lady Grey was he was on holiday in the area. He travelled over from his retreat in the little village of Rhodes. What would have taken weeks using email and the telephone was done and dusted in a one-hour business meeting hour. Mike then took us for a traditional boozy publisher’s lunch, except, of course, it was in the evening. The little bar had no customers for food apart from us, but there were many large white men in the bar. I felt the young woman behind the counter was just waiting to be discovered and whisked away to fame and fortune. Of note was the snow flurry as we sat at breakfast! That part of the country can be very cold. Fortunately, the rooms were relatively warm.

On the drive round the Lesotho border, my cell phone informed me that it was connected to the Lesotho network. In Clarens we stayed in the guest house run by a former colleague and his wife, they treated us to a tasty supper and plenty of wine. It was a most comfortable and luxurious place, built around the original farmhouse – the walls are huge sandstone blocks. It was delightful to catch-up with these old friends on the many events in their lives. We last met over 15 years ago.

There were numerous spectacular natural wonders on the drive. I will mention just three. The Tradouws pass from Suurbraak to Barrydale is a cavern in sandstone. The road winds along the bottom of the valley, beside a river. It is a gateway to the Little Karoo. Outside Graaf-Reinet we went up into Camdeboo National Park to gaze down on the Valley of Desolation, as someone who hates heights this was a stomach-turning sight. The spectacular mountains in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park are also sandstone, but a paler colour, and absolutely glowed in the sunshine, gold indeed.

Tradouws Pass

The incredible Tradouws Pass

Desolation Valley

Desolation Valley near Graaf-Reinet

We visited a museum in Graaf-Reinet with an extremely interesting exhibit. There were pieces of glass from the honeymoon suite windows of a now demolished hotel. It seems at the end of the 1800s the new brides would scratch their names into the glass with their rings, at least they did if the stones were diamonds. The consequences if they were not gems was not recorded, but we can speculate.

The village of Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape is at the foot of the Sneeuberge. The name is biblical and means “place of flowing water”. It has the Owl House, the home of artist Helen Martins (1897-1976). It is difficult to describe this. The Wikipedia entry says “she turned her house and the area around it into a visionary environment, elaborately decorated with ground glass and containing more than 300 statues including owls, camels, peacocks, pyramids, and people. She inherited the house from her parents and began its transformation after they died.” I include a few photographs. She was a tormented soul who committed suicide by drinking caustic soda!

The guest house hosts were generally unusual. In Nieu-Bethesda at The Ibis Barbara had spent 15 years in Tanzania where she met her husband, a South African conservationist. At the House Martin Guest Lodge in De Rust the hosts, Jan and Teresa, had spent years in Dubai, she in the corporate world and he, among other things, a rugby coach. The food in all the guest houses was exceptional, and as might be expected there was an emphasis on the dish of the district – lamb.

Decorations at The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

The Golden Gate National Park

The Golden Gate National Park

Parts of the trip were arduous. We drove into Nieu-Bethesda in the dark on a dirt road. It was not pleasant, but this paled into insignificance compared to the forced detour to get into Natal. In general, many of the roads were in an appalling condition. The drive through the Eastern Cape and Free State involved negotiating numerous bone jarring potholes. Those in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal were largely marginally better, but the detour was hell. South African truck drivers are protesting against the employment of foreign drivers by blockading various key roads and we fell victim to this action. Of course, this was familiar, various Canadian American border crossings have been blockaded by angry truckers in recent months.

The main route from Johannesburg to Durban is the N3 and we joined it, briefly, just above Van Reneen’s pass, where it drops over the escarpment in KwaZulu-Natal. The xenophobic drivers had blocked the pass and we were directed onto a dirt road. We set off with trepidation. The detour was just over 20 kilometres, but it took over an hour. There was a line of slow-moving traffic, and the dust was ghastly. A number of drivers, especially those driving expensive, low-slung vehicles – think Porsche – turned back, as it was too bad. Others, the ones in four-wheel drive vehicles, behaved atrociously, overtaking the line of drivers and throwing up stones, I feared for my windscreen. There was however no option for us, so we kept going. We eventually arrived in Durban just after dark, experiencing really bad and impatient driving on the motorway over the last 50 kilometres. It was a relief to get there.

Writing this blog, I am reminded that I thought of the journey as something of a farewell tour. My companion, Sancho, was easy going, we shared the driving and generally chilled out. All the people we met on the way were interesting and unusual, except of course for the old friends who were expected to be interesting and unusual and did not disappoint. I feel privileged to have had this opportunity.

I have been in Durban for a few days now, and have had the chance to wander around, indeed I have done two very long walks through the neighbourhood. It is a city with problems. The rioting and looting in July of 2021 scarred some areas. The shopping centre down the hill was ransacked. This is not very visible as most of the damage has been repaired. The same cannot be said for the effects of the flooding in April 2022. It was estimated 435 people were killed and devastation is very visible. Almost every manhole cover has been washed away. There has been a huge amount of soil deposited on the roads, visible as drifts of red sand on many corners. A number of people have told me how dreadful the situation is and how poor the city government response has been. I have to be fair and say that I think it is not as bad as everyone says. One of the signs of this is the city council workers busily cleaning up the mess. South Africans are good at talking themselves down!

Monkeys in Glenwood, Durban

In Glenwood, Durban

And finally, on the flight to Cape Town, I watched three films. Belfast written and directed by Kenneth Branagh is the story, clearly biographical, of a young protestant boy in 1969 Belfast, at the beginning of the troubles. It is described as a coming-of-age drama film. I found it both moving and informative, perhaps because I remember these times, although they hardly touched us in Swaziland. City of Angels was released in 1998 and stars Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan in a romantic fantasy film. Cage plays an angel who falls in love with a female surgeon and becomes human to be with her. I won’t say how it ends, suffice it to say it was a tearjerker. Richard Says Goodbye, also titled Professor, was an odd film. It was released in 2018 and may be one of the last films starring Johnny Depp. It tells of an English professor who learns he has stage 4 lung cancer, which is terminal. He might live six months without treatment, but 12–18 months with aggressive and painful cancer treatment. He decides against treatment. We follow him over the next few months, his interactions with family, students, colleagues and friends. I don’t think I would have gone to see any in a cinema, but they made the journey pass.

Funerals, Memorials and Spring

We are waiting on tenterhooks for the swifts to return to Norwich. In summer 2021, we had six nest boxes installed, under the eaves, on the side of the house. It was too late for that breeding season, so we will only learn if the birds find them attractive in the next few weeks. We are told to encourage them by playing recordings of swifts calling. The conservationists warn that it may take a couple of years before birds choose to nest in our boxes.

The story of swifts is a counterpoint to sadness I have experienced over the last weeks. In early May we attended the funeral service of Joan Watts (3 June 1926 to 8 April 2022). A long life and, as the person who took the service told us, a happy and good one. We knew her as the sister of Arthur Duffield, whom Ailsa had befriended as part of her bereavement support network. Arthur died two years ago. He was a widower and as neither he nor his sister had children, that direct lineage ends. Joan lived and managed on her own, amazing considering she had a leg amputated.

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The end is nigh

It is many years since I included a ‘round robin’ in with Christmas cards and this, lazily, also constitutes my blog post for December. There is a good reason this year. I have significant news and don’t want to leave people out, or have to write it in all the cards I send.

You may recall in January 2014 I joined the Balsillie School in Waterloo, Ontario as a full time member of faculty. It is complicated appointment. My salary is paid by Wilfrid Laurier University, but I work at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Here I was, according to my letter of appointment, employed to teach two courses per year, and carry out the other responsibilities of a senior academic, including researching, writing and publishing.

About two years ago the University unilaterally, and with very little consultation, decided to change the conditions of service. They were, of course, made less favourable for academics. Of particular concern was the doubling of our teaching commitment. I came here because I had not, in 30 years as an academic, taught (two years of teaching one course at the University of Natal on Southern African Development in 1984 and 1985 had receded to a distant memory). I wanted to see what it would be like to work with and teach MA and PhD students. The idea of supervising a thesis from start to finish was intriguing, and I am happy to report that I did manage to do that with one student.

This new demand regarding teaching made staying in Waterloo problematic in the long term. I neither had courses prepared, nor much guidance on what to do. In addition to more teaching being mandatory my academic cohort was assured, when we signed up in 2012 and 2013, there would be research money available to us, without too many hoops to leap through. This promise evaporated like the dew in the Kalahari in January, although it was not entirely the fault of the university but rather the shocking behaviour of one of the other ‘partners’. In addition to this moving the goalposts, a part of the university bureaucracy was irrational to me. I have every intention of writing about this in due course.

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Frying in Norfolk

Anyone who denies climate change, and more specifically, global warming, is seriously wrong. At the end of August we had record temperatures in Norwich. Fortunately it cooled down in the evenings so sleeping has not been too difficult. However, this summer the rowan tree in the front garden died from a mixture of disease and heat stress. Ailsa has been using the water from the rain butts to keep some of her favourite plants alive, but it is an uphill battle. It presents a dismal picture and I really wonder what the next 10 to 20 years will hold. I am increasingly aware of my contribution to this crisis, particularly through flying, but I do not consider myself to be a flamboyant consumer of other things.

Having said that, I have to begin this blog by reflecting on my travelling over the past month. My final class in Waterloo was on 30th July. I had to complete the marking and submit the marks by 8th August. I was able to do this, and almost all of the students should have been pleased with the outcome. The temperatures and humidity gradually rose in Waterloo, and I was glad to be heading for Norwich. I did not realise how hot Norwich was going to be.

I travelled over on Sunday 11th August, flying via Amsterdam. Toronto to Amsterdam is not all that long, just 7½ hours. This is not long enough to take a sleeping pill, so I sat and watched the film ‘Red Joan’. This was about a British woman who became a Soviet spy in the 1940s and 50s. Oddly I was reading a book called ‘And Is There Honey Still For Tea?’, by Peter Murphy, set in the same time period and covering the same topics. It is hard to believe how much skullduggery there was going on then. I guess it is still happening, with electronic surveillance playing an ever-increasing role.

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Pollen and polling

In my blog, posted at the end of March, I described the surgery I underwent in Durban. I also talked about going out a couple of times, with friends, to a really delightful little bakery/pizza restaurant in the neighbourhood. It does not even have a liquor licence; and this does tend to mean the evening is cheaper as one takes one’s own wine. Among those friends was Jurgen Brauninger and his family. I wrote in that blog:

‘On a personal level it is interesting to see my cohort, friends and colleagues ageing into their 60s, for the most part with grace and dignity. It is however a shock to us all – but, as I said to one friend, ‘it is better than the alternative’.’

Within two weeks of these dinners we learned, out of the blue, that Jurgen was not well. He was suffering from pancreatic and liver cancer, and was having difficulty in eating. After various consultations he was scheduled for urgent surgery to ease pressure on his duodenum. While this was not a cure, it was expected to improve the quality of his life. The surgery was carried out on 26 April (by the same surgeon who did my hernia); Jurgen did not recover and died on 6 May.

I want to pay tribute to a dear friend and colleague, a talented musician, but above all a devoted family man. I know Tania, Hannah and Brigitte will be torn apart by grief. Sitting in Canada I have felt very distant, but no less sad. I wish I had deep and meaningful forethoughts about this but I don’t, I just know I will miss him enormously. Andrew Marvell’s lines “But at my back I always hear, Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near”, were not written about death; they do seem very apt though.

The Brauningers lived a few houses up the road from us in Manor Gardens. Their children were similar ages to Rowan and Douglas. We celebrated many milestones together; Brigitte did the most amazing Easter lunches for the university crowd and others. The families went away together for a number of short holidays in the province. Everyone enjoying each other’s company, even braaing under umbrellas during a heavy rainstorm. Their home was an original ‘wood and iron’ house, this is one of the first Durban houses and relatively few are left standing. Jurgen, I and Ullie, one of his friends, purchased the house next door when it came on the market, in order to preserve it and the jungle of a garden for a little bit longer. Jurgen and Brigitte had just moved a few kilometers to a more modern house and were planning their retirement when this devastating event occurred. This has been a deeply sad time.

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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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Sharing 60

Sharing 60

Normally when I post on the website I comment, at the end, on films I have seen or books I have read. This month’s post unusually begins with the two films I watched on the flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in early November. The first was the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It was excellent, thought provoking and depressing. The story is of a 59 year old scaffolder who is unable to work because of a heart problem. He is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of not getting the state benefits he should, because he is deemed fit enough to look for work. It is a searing indictment of the failure of the welfare state, increasingly the case in the UK. This is the result of global trends to elect people who don’t care, at least not in the way I was brought up. It made me ask what I would do if I had power, probably a basic income grant for all.

In Durban I am sharing the car with Rowan, who has travelled over to spend five months in South Africa. She has two days’ work a week in Umhlanga, so on those days I walk. There was a youngish white man, on crutches, begging on the street a few hundred metres from the flat. I asked him over to tell me his story and, in exchange, gave him a decent amount of money. He said he was a welder by trade. He lost the lower part of his left leg in a motor accident a few years ago. He said he was trying to scrape together enough money to replace his identity document in order to get work. He is living with his wife and child in one room in the town centre. How much of that was true? I don’t know. South Africa is a harsh society for people who don’t have resources.

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