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.

Teeth and travel

At the beginning of October I developed a toothache. It persisted and got steadily worse. The dentist saw me immediately, for which I am very grateful, x-rayed the teeth, identified two abscesses, and gave me two antibiotics. One was anti-alcohol which meant I had a dry two weeks. The following week I was scheduled to fly to Johannesburg and drive to Eswatini (Swaziland). On the Monday there was a lump in my gum, and it was still very painful. I had an emergency appointment, the abscess was lanced, and the relief was immediate!

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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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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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