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.

The original move to Canada took rather longer than anticipated. Finding the right person to take over HEARD in Durban was a lengthy process. I was absolutely delighted when an academic friend, Professor Nana Poku, accepted the position. HEARD is still operating, and is stronger than ever with Nana at the helm. One of my mantras is, “the only way to leave a legacy is to leave”. I am glad I did, and six years later the organisation is flourishing. The AIDS epidemic has not gone away although the pressing problems are somewhat different from those of the 1990s and 2000s.

It was a wrench leaving Durban which had been (mostly) home for 30 years, and where the children were born. When we sold the family home I bought a small flat. Fortunately for me, Tim Quinlan, who was my Research Director at HEARD, continues his affiliation at the University. He occupies the flat for most of the year and covers the bulk of the recurrent costs of maintaining my pied-à-terre. This works. We try to not be there at the same time. Friendship is one thing, sharing a bathroom another entirely.

I spent some time in Durban in March and April of 2019. I needed a small surgical procedure – an umbilical hernia repair. I was one of the fortunate few employed at the University of Natal, whose terms and conditions included post-retirement medical care as part of the package. This is for the rest of my life, as long as I am in South Africa. As a result I decided to have the operation done in Durban. The surgeon, Craig Campbell, gave me a choice of stitching or a mesh. I decided the embroidery would be less invasive. This was a mistake; unfortunately the repair did not work. I have to wait a year to have it redone. I am not sure where I will do this, the waiting lists in Canada and the UK are very long, as is always the case with national health services and elective procedures.

In addition to having the operation I saw many friends during my time in Durban. Among these were the Brauninger family. They lived on the same road, Manor Drive, about 100 meters from us. Hannah, their eldest daughter, is six months older than Rowan. Tania, the second is about 18 months older than Douglas. Jurgen was a professor in the music department at the University, and they came to Durban two years after we did. The family are very dear friends. I spent time with them, having a final meal together at the really delightful Glenwood Bakery and pizza restaurant.

Less than a month after I left, the news came that Jurgen had been diagnosed with advanced cancer. This progressed very rapidly and he died on 6th May 2019. I would like to pay tribute to a loving family man, remarkable musician, and a dear friend. He had many enthusiasms: formula one racing, horses, European and World Cup football and, of course, music. I find myself thinking of him often and missing his presence in Durban. It is completely devastating for his family as Christmas approaches.

Coming back to the purpose of this blog/round robin letter! I am due sabbatical from the University. The earliest I could get a full year was for the 2020 calendar year. I will be leaving in a couple of weeks, after the end of term, and get to Norwich just before Christmas 2019. I have to stay long enough to complete my marking and submit the grades. I also need to prepare the apartment for renting.

The University is keen to have its older, more expensive academics take early retirement. Since there is no mandatory retirement age it seems to me leaving any time before death is ‘early’. As a result Laurier offered all academics with more than a number of years’ service a package. I have been included in this. It means that January to December 2020 is my sabbatical and January to December 2021 is a period of ‘continuance of service’, but I am not teaching. In January 2022 I will be collecting my pension and will be retired! The next two years will give me a chance to work out what retirement this will look like. I have affiliations at two universities in the UK and remain a Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, giving institutional homes which could be important for seeking research funds.

So the question is: what is the plan? I am not at all sure. I need to work on my sabbatical project, which is to finally get to grips with the book on Eswatini (the country formerly known as Swaziland). I first wrote a prospectus for a publisher back in 2008, but it kept being put on the back boiler. The first title was “A Political Economy of Swaziland”. The new working title is “An Accidental Country: The Politics and Economics of Eswatini”. I am looking forward to getting my teeth into this. I also want to write about my life – but fully recognise that this would be primarily for me, it would be a reflective project. Once I am in Norwich I will sign up to some writing courses through the Writer’s Centre. I also, desperately need to get fit again, I have barely done any exercise since the hernia operation.

It would be really great if Ailsa and I could do some traveling. The goal would be to do this by road and rail. It would be important not to fly and be more environmentally conscious. High on my list of places to go is Ireland, we have only been to Dublin. This would be achievable by either road or rail (including a ferry trip). Greece is rather further, but is also reachable by train.

I must end this meandering by mentioning the ghastly political situation in the UK. It has been a most horrifying and divisive period. I actually paid my membership to the Liberal Democrats. We may hold the balance of power, but sadly won’t be able to form a government. So let me end this by sending you best wishes for Christmas and the New Year wherever you are. We hope to see you at some point and somewhere in 2020. This is being posted on the 4th of December as my final class (ever?) was on the 3rd of December and I wanted to also report that fact!

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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