War in Europe

My last blog post was on 23rd February 2022. The next day we woke to the news that Russian troops had invaded Ukraine. A month later the fighting rages across the nation. I find it shocking to write those words. The Western press reports the Russian war has not gone to plan. They were, we are told, expecting a quick invasion accompanied by the collapse of Ukrainian resistance, and Russian troops being welcomed as liberators. This is certainly not the case. However, it is important to recognise that the truth is the first casualty of war.

This month’s blog is a reflection on my experiences in Ukraine. Kyiv is one of the cities I most enjoyed visiting. The Ukrainians we met and worked with were wonderful people. My time there made me want to learn Ukrainian and go back as a tourist. What is happening is quite dreadful and unprovoked. Putin appears deranged and vicious, but it is difficult to predict what will happen.

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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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Closing Circles

July was full of travel: to Norwich for a few days, and a day in London; then to Swaziland and on to Durban; the return trip to Norwich late July. This was mostly done in economy – or on the KLM flights, in premium economy, which gives a bit more room. The exception in the class of travel was the trip to London. There seems little sense in how rail travel is priced. I needed to get an early train and the cost of a first class ticket was £46 while for an economy ticket it was £45, which really is a no brainer! On the train the toilet had a delightful sign under the lid, there is a photograph in the gallery, but it is a little out of focus. The sign said: ‘Please don’t flush Nappies; sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes dreams or goldfish down this toilet’. How nice to see a sense of humour on the train. Apparently the carriage had been borrowed, or hired from Virgin Trains.

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Older and wiser?

Older and wiser?

I realised as I prepared this posting that some of it is old news, given the speed with which things get passed round on Facebook. Never mind – here is the first report for 2015 and I want it on my webpage anyway. On 22 November, while I was in Canada, in Toronto to be exact, a letter arrived at 1 Brabazon Road in Norwich. Ailsa opened it and phoned me to share the contents. I am very glad she did. I took the call walking down Yonge Street, the station to get the train to Waterloo. This is not a salubrious part of town, but it is where the second hand bookshops are located.

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All the N’s: Norwich, Nairobi, Norwich, New York

I wrote this post after travelling to Kenya and concluded it was a rather depressing trip in some ways. The reason for the travel was a board meeting for AIDSpan a small NGO whose mandate is to watch and support the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria. I went over from the UK on Wednesday and returned to Norwich on a late flight on Saturday evening arriving back on Sunday. The flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam is longer than the one from Toronto to Amsterdam. I don’t think I appreciated that Canada was so close, or maybe that Nairobi was so far.

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New Beginnings

The past month has been hectic but rather fun. I left Durban, as promised, on  19 December 2013. That was sad. The last days involved clearing out my office, deciding what needed to be shipped to Canada, stored in the flat, put in the suitcase, or given away. I know that to some extent, I keep my life in boxes. The University of KwaZulu-Natal box is now closed, and, hopefully, the important residual parts are in transit. There is a lot to reflect on, of course. How could there not be after 30 years?

I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I did, to connect with people, to build an organisation and support my team’s contribution to knowledge and science which, hopefully, makes a positive difference. I am proud of my own substantial publishing record.

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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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Governance and Gales

At the end of October I was involved in a series of Board meetings. The first was my final one as Executive Director of HEARD. This was held in our offices on 18 October. It was a bit unusual for us to hold it in Durban as we usually met in Johannesburg. This involved the least travelling for the Board members.

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Christmas 2011

The end of 2011 was something of a blur. I got to the UK from Boston on 4 December, landing in London, and taking the train up to Norwich. Because the flight from Boston to London is so short I had not bothered to try sleep. I was quite lucky because there were no major delays on the underground or the mainline trains, although there was a commuter train to Ipswich instead of the usual comfortable Inter-city carriages. Normally on Sundays the engineering work is carried out, and in the worst case, instead of trains, there are buses.

I had barely unpacked my bag when I repacked (a smaller bag though), to travel up to Glasgow for an ‘away day’ with the team at the Department for International Development (DFID). This was great fun and, as always, I learnt a lot deal from everyone, and hope I was able to contribute.

Having travelled up to Glasgow with colleagues on the train from Euston, I had to return to Norwich via London. The day I travelled saw gale force winds and flooding in Scotland and the North West of England. The train was three and a half hours late arriving in London and there were times when we were progressing at just five miles an hour. An interesting psychological twist is that to be moving forward, even very slowly, gives the impression of progress, and is better than standing still. It also gave us plenty of time to look at the muddy rivers in full spate, the extensive stretches of water where they had burst their banks and the sodden and deserted countryside.

Because we were so late into London I had to get a peak time train up to Norwich and I did not have a ticket for this. It is much more expensive to travel at this time. I was so impressed when the people from the train company (Virgin Trains, and given my moan in my last posting about the airline, it is nice to be able to say something nice about a Virgin company), simply stamped the back of my ticket at Euston. The conductor on the train to Norwich, a different rail operator, since the railways were privatised and broken up, accepted this without question.

All travel to Scotland and the north of England was severely disrupted and there was a little vignette on the tube that impressed itself on me. Standing opposite me was a businessman who was talking on his phone. He was probably in his mid-40s and it was clear from the conversation that he was supposed to be travelling to Edinburgh by air from one of the London airports, Stansted.
“I don’t know if the planes are flying,” he said, talking to his personal assistant. “But I have to get to Edinburgh tonight. Please will you call the airline and let them know I am on my way.” Pause! “Yes I know that won’t affect the chances of the flight, but please do it anyway.” At the end of the call his eyes filled with tears and his chin wobbled as he gazed blankly through me. I wonder what the back story to that was.

Another quick chance to unpack and repack and I went down to London for a two-day meeting of United Kingdom Funders of Health Systems, hosted by, among others, the Welcome Trust, DFID and the Economic and Social Research Council. This was deeply interesting. The UK-based organisations face the same problems we do at HEARD with regard to getting research into policy and practice. I think though that we are a ‘best practice’.

I got back to Norwich on 14 December knowing that I would be here for a decent period of time. There was still a fair bit going on: two conference calls, one of which lasted two hours, and general thinking about management, both what we have done and what we need to do. After all this was done then I was able to take time for other things.

I can’t say I did very much that was productive from an academic point of view in the run up to Christmas. However I completed the gathering of material for my UK tax return. Because I have an income, and am considered a resident in South Africa and the UK, I have to furnish returns in both countries. I find it extraordinarily stressful. Gathering all the pieces of paper, receipts, details of where I have been and when (which is required for making judgements on residential status) and all that goes with this makes me sweat. I had lost one of vital piece of paper and had to make a number of phone calls to get duplicates. As I say, huge stress, obviously this is not totally necessary, but avoiding it would require careful thinking all year and a system of gathering information. I do not think I am capable of that sadly.

My sister Gill came up to Norwich from her home in London on Thursday, 22 December and stayed with us for just under a week. We did not do as much with her as we could or should have, but we did do some interesting things. The current pro Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia Tom Ward lived in Swaziland with his family in the 1970s and was at Waterford Kamhlaba School at the same time as Gill. They had reconnected via Facebook, and he very kindly invited us over for dinner. His family live, it turns out, about four streets away from us in the same suburb and the children went to the same schools all the way from the first school to sixth form college. We had a most interesting evening which involved a great deal of reminiscing about the school and Swaziland. We were so lucky to grow up there.

On Christmas Eve we went to the Christmas procession with carols at Norwich Cathedral. This is an amazing building. The foundation stone was laid in 1096, over 1000 years ago. It is huge and complex and was built from gorgeous Caen sandstone quarried in Normandy, France, shipped over to Yarmouth, and then brought up the river to Norwich. There was a special canal which led directly into the masons’ yard. There is a good website http://www.cathedral.org.uk which gives a picture of the history of the cathedral and a tour of it as it is today.

When I look at buildings like this I always wonder about the vision that went into planning and executing it. The people who designed it knew they would not live to see it completed, yet they still went ahead. I really enjoy the cathedral and was delighted to see it was absolutely packed; the citizens of Norwich making use of it. The way the service worked is that the choristers, cathedral officials and clergy, Mayor of Norwich, and Bishop processed through the building, stopping at various points for readings and hymns. It was quite a sight. Although we had to stand for the first part of the service we were allowed to sit where the choir had been as they progressed though the church.

The second reading was from the Nave Pulpit. From here they made their way to the Pelican Lectern in the Crossing for the third reading. This is where the two transepts meet across the nave: the cathedral is built in the shape of a cross, and the 95 metre spire is above this. This caused me some amusement because a pelican crossing is a piece of street furniture and the juxtaposition of the words was I suspect unintentional.

On Christmas day we went to the Baptist church attended by Tom and his family. The days of hymn books appear to be over in most churches because they now project the words on a big screen above the Alter. I find this slightly disturbing, but I do appreciate the large print that is easy to read. The background music was provided by the expected organist, but there were also two violins. It was a real family service, was short, and alarmingly the sermon was illustrated with Power Point slides, using the screen! We then went home, opened gifts and enjoyed the Christmas meal. The first year I have not listened to the Queen’s speech.

On Boxing Day Gill was invited to visit friends from London staying in Gunthorpe Hall about 20 miles away from Norwich. It can be seen at http://www.gunthorpehall.co.uk . This is a magnificent hall used for weddings and corporate functions. Over Christmas the owners had over 30 personal friends as guests. Gill had been to visit two years ago when she last came to Norwich for Christmas. What a contrast, then we had snow and the roads were quite icy, on this occasion the temperature was about 10°c. The small problem is that the car has a highly computerised engine system and it is very sensitive. We drove over a cattle grid and now the electronic warning signs are telling us we have an engine fault. The mechanic will diagnose is a displaced sensor I suspect. Rowan has an older and simpler Peugeot, and she remarked that she much prefers a car which ‘just breaks down and does not tell you it is going to’. Ailsa and I went to collect Gill and had a cup of tea in the large, almost industrial-style kitchen. Apparently one of the notable features of the Christmases is the amount of food that everyone eats.

spent some time over the past few days cutting wood for our fire and managed to nearly asphyxiate everyone by putting some very green logs on it. We had to open all the windows and doors which rather defeats the object of having a fire in the first place. It takes a long time to cut logs to a size that means they can be burnt; it is alarming how little time it takes to burn them. We have trees and fence posts that can be used as firewood, but given that the woodburner is quite small it takes a lot of work. Douglas considers himself to be in charge of making and lighting the fire and keeping it burning. He and I have been cutting wood together as I want him to appreciate how much effort it takes to get the logs in the first place.

My sister left on the 28th, but we were not off the hook because Douglas’s girlfriend arrived from the North of England to spend a week in Norwich. She is actually a very bright young woman; I had not met her before but at our dinner conversation she held her own on feminist literature which was pretty impressive. She is a year younger than Douglas and seems confident and personable.

In the last few days before 2012 I am going to spend time cleaning out my office, planning my year ahead, and even thinking further than that. I have always enjoyed the opportunity to make plans. A new diary and blank calendar fill me with eager anticipation. The sad part is to come to the end of the year and realise how little was actually achieved in terms of what one had intended. Nonetheless I have every expectation that 2012 will be an important year and a number of critical decisions will be made. I am reaching the point when I know there is a countdown factor in my working life – rather like the builders of Norwich cathedral there are some things that I need recognise will have long lead times, for example taking on PhD students.

It is alarming to realise how vulnerable people are. We have watched our neighbour across the road become rapidly less capable. She was admitted to hospital the week before Christmas and will have been there for over two weeks by the time I send this posting off. Her husband died 18 months ago. I thought that she was the stronger person in the relationship but it has become clear that she was very dependent on him for many things. It is by no means certain that she will be able to return to home. She has two young dogs that need care. Although her two children take it in turns to let them out and feed them they have to drive some distance to do this. We are going across to give them company. We also take them for walks with Deedee. She (Deedee) is not impressed with these two interlopers and growls at them and generally demonstrates she is ‘top dog’. They are powerful little animals and have managed to cause me to pull a muscle in my arm.
And so the last posting of 2011, this was finished on Saturday 31st December 2011. Perhaps though it would be more accurate to describe it as the first posting of 2012. I will have a good look at this website with the view to making some improvements to it towards the end of January. If you have read this far then please do come back and have a look in a couple of months.


Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Penguin Books, 2010 London 270 pp.

The first book I read by Michael Lewis was called Liars Poker and described his time in Wall Street in the late 1980s just before the first financial collapse. In this book he revisits the money market between 2000 and 2010. It is a story of irresponsible and criminal activity. The criminals are those who should have controlled the financial markets and failed to do so. In essence, as I read it, the financial markets created debt, and encouraged millions of Americans to borrow beyond their means. They then packaged this debt and sold and resold it. The whole activity was premised on the idea that house prices would continue going up, thus creating a sense of affluence even if it wasn’t real. And then the music stopped. Yet, as Lewis shows, people who benefited from this were not held responsible. I find this an extraordinary book and depressing beyond belief because there still seems to be no holding people to account. This, and indeed all his books, will reward the reader.

Jeff Shaara, To the Last Man, Ballantine Books, 2005 New York 635 pp.

Shaara provides a very interesting postscript where he discusses what happened to the characters in the book, obviously only those who survived. It is interesting to note that even the young men who lived through the war did not last long. I suppose part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was because of my and Douglas’s visits to the battlefields last year. Of course my father fought in this ‘war to end all wars’. I think he was deeply scarred by the experience and it came out in various ways which I could not begin to understand.

Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, Vintage Books, 2010 London 339pp.

I have really grown to enjoy the writing of Richard Russo; most recently I read and reviewed his book Empire Falls. This, his latest story is set on Cape Cod, in the North East of the United States. It begins during a wedding of a friend of the daughter of Jack and Joy Griffin, who honeymooned here are some 34 years previously. The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Jack the husband. At the beginning of the book he reflects on his parent’s dysfunctional marriage. In the course of the weekend he manages to alienate his wife to the extent that they separate. A year later they are back to see their daughter, their only child marry and have to be polite to each other during this time. The book ends with a feeling of hope because Jack recognises his boorish behaviour, and asks for a second chance. There is a great deal about how couples relate, the inevitability of some of the gendered dance that goes on: for example, as I read recently somewhere, “women need to feel loved to have sex; men need to have sex to feel loved”. It is astutely observed but gives those of us who struggle to understand ourselves and each other little comfort. Russo raises big questions about what happens to us in the course of a lifetime; how we grow up and relate to our friends and parents; how we partner; and ultimately what happens towards the end of our lives as we grow old and introspective. Interestingly the main characters in his books seemed to be only children, perhaps an artifice that allows for more reflection. With siblings the edges get knocked off and families are very much more complicated. I recently had lunch with a long standing friend who described his family as ‘emotionally incontinent’; the converse of this is ‘emotional constipation’. Wonderfully apt.

Kjell Eriksson, The Princess of Burundi, Allison and Busby, London 2006, 410 pp

This is the latest of the Scandinavian crime books I have read. Set in Uppsala in winter, it is a murder and police procedural novel. It was an enjoyable read and I shall look out for more by this author (and translator). There is not much more to add to this as it was a light read (in as much as Nordic crime can be light).