Road Trips, Plane Trips and Entrepreneurs

It has been an interesting and active four weeks. I travelled to South Africa in the middle of the month. The weekend before the journey we drove to Kent, to visit my half-sister Pat, who is 24 years older than me. Unfortunately her husband, David, was in hospital for a hernia operation. This did not go well initially. He has recovered now, but he was in hospital for the entire time we were there. His misfortune meant their children, who are slightly younger than me, were about. We had a lunch, with all my siblings present and then with members of Pat and David’s family. It was a four drive from Norwich. Going down the traffic uses the bridge across the Thames at Blackwall, coming back we drove thought the tunnel. These are both tolled, but there was a transponder on the car we hired which simply beeped. This is a theme of the blog post in July – transponders!

We had a good time. Ailsa found an idyllic cottage, ‘May’s Cottage‘. It had two bedrooms so my sister Gill, who took the train down from London, was able to stay with us. There was an area to sit outside and it was amazingly peaceful and beautiful. The swallows swooped, cows mooed and foxes barked. It is far enough from Gatwick airport that I was able to enjoy the sight of the planes but it was not too disruptive. All in all a very good weekend.

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Falling Leaves: November 2012

Autumn has arrived in Norwich (and in Canada). I head for Durban soon with the dual goal of topping up on sunshine and getting a great deal of work done. There is a lot happening and, at the moment, life is exciting so read on for more details. The big occasion taking me back to Durban is the HEARD World AIDS Day function. On 14 November, in conjunction with the Africa Centre, CAPRISA the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, we are holding an event at the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts Gallery . The theme is taken from UNAIDS, Getting to Zero: Zero New HIV Infections, Discrimination, and AIDS-Related Deaths. We have advertised it as an event ‘Showcasing KZN research on HIV and AIDS’.

HEARD’s highlight will be the South African premier of our documentary Manguzi: Raising Children in Rural South Africa. This film is set in an area close to the Mozambique border where we did a project. I have seen it a number of times, checking it from an accuracy and political point of view. It will be great to be just in the audience. The team who did the work deserve high praise for overcoming many logistical challenges, collecting some fascinating data, and now are writing it up.

This will be the occasion where I formally tell my research colleagues and friends in Durban that I will be leaving HEARD in 2013. (I feel I need to put in a footnote here that says: subject to the paperwork being completed). This should not come as a big surprise to most people as the news has been out for a while. It is however a chance for me to combine some of my favourite things: the Gallery; the research and academic communities; and many friends. The idea of doing such an event germinated at a book launch at Ike’s Books and Collectable – also a Durban institution – a few months ago. Authors who have books launched there put their signatures on the wall. My name is up alongside the likes of JM Coetzee and many others. The walls are probably worth more than the stock.

At the end of October Ailsa and I travelled to Canada for a week – hence the leaves in the title of the posting, and yes they were amazing. We flew to Toronto and were taken down to Waterloo in Ontario. We spent four nights there and then a further two nights in Toronto. The reason for the visit is that I have been offered, and have accepted, the International Governance and Innovation Chair in Global Health Policy by Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU). This will be housed in the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a partnership between WLU, the University of Waterloo (UW) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a public policy think tank. I have put in the links to these organisations and they are all worth looking at. The CIGI campus is amazing, part is a brand new, state of the art building while the old Seagram’s distillery has been converted and incorporated as office space.

The School represents a large global initiative in social sciences with over 60 faculty members who teach in three programmes: the PhD in Global Governance, the Master’s in Global Governance and the Master’s in International Public Policy. There are three new staff members: Simon Dalby, CIGI Chair of Political Economy and Climate Change; James Orbinski, CIGI Chair in Global Health; and in due course, myself. We had a ‘Blue Skies’ thinking session which was a great fun – the staff have very interesting ideas and a range of experience. One of the exciting opportunities for me will be working in an interdisciplinary manner. I am also very much looking forward to teaching and interacting with students at various levels.

Quite a lot of the visit was spent exploring the area. The streets are wide and driving on the right hand side is challenging. What I found particularly difficult was the traffic lights being suspended over the streets instead of on poles at the side. I nearly ran a red light. On the other hand, the hire car was automatic and seemed very powerful. We went out to an amazing farmer’s market at St Jacobs north of Waterloo. The area was settled by German Mennonites and there were a number of stall holders dressed in traditional attire. Indeed Waterloo was originally called Berlin. The name was changed at the beginning of the First World War. I am not clear where the decision to call the town Waterloo came from but I am sure I will learn in the next few years (or I could go on Wikipedia now of course).

On the Thursday we began seeing news of Hurricane Sandy moving out of the Caribbean and towards the east coast of the United States. There was a real sense of foreboding and many warnings. We were scheduled to leave Toronto airport at 18.30 on Monday and feared that there might be a disruption of travel. Indeed there was, most flights to and from New York airports and other American east coast destinations were cancelled. The storm hit Toronto at about midnight on Monday so we were able to get away, although I note with hindsight there was comparatively little disruption in that part of Ontario.

What an interesting visit. I spent a couple of days with the colleagues I will be joining. We also had a discussion with the immigration lawyer who is handling the paperwork. He gave us a great deal of material, everything from taking a dog to getting a social insurance number, which is abbreviated as the SIN. Being asked ‘Have you got your SIN?’ left me quite flabbergasted. It all looks feasible. The plan is to begin with a fractional appointment once the paperwork is done and move to full time by the middle of 2013. I started at the University of Natal (UN) as a Research Fellow on 1 September 1983 so I will be just a few months shy of having spent 30 years at UN and now University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). There is a great deal of planning going on to make sure the transition works for HEARD. All staff, Board, donors and Senior Management at UKZN are aware of my plans.

Because I travel a great deal, and almost always on KLM, I have the highest grade of frequent flyer card they give. I also have it for life (my life not theirs). This means when they work their way down the list for people to be upgraded when there is overbooking in economy class I am usually close to the top. On the plane from Toronto to Amsterdam, as we handed over our boarding cards mine beeped on the machine. I was told I had an upgrade. Ailsa was also given one: she was in the front row of the premium economy class, not quite the same, but she graciously allowed me to go in the business section. We had sat next to each other on their way to Toronto in the ‘real economy’ class at the back of the plane. The return flight is only six hours and so was not too bad; however one arrives in Amsterdam at the equivalent of 2am North American time, and gets into Norwich at the equivalent of 5am. I am not sure how I will cope with all the transatlantic flights in my new position.

My son Douglas gave us time to unpack and spend a night in Norwich before heading up to Yorkshire to visit his girlfriend. He was in charge whilst we were gone and took good care of the animals, fed himself and his sister who was here a part of the time, and generally behaved in a responsible manner. On Fridays he delivers a free local paper to about 150 households in the neighbourhood. If he is away someone else has to do this, Ailsa and I shared the task. I think I am one of the most academically qualified people delivering newspapers. I find it deeply interesting, a window into another world.

I also recognise I am pedantic and quite hard to live with. I had a good example of this characteristic the other evening. Because Rowan has moved out there is more space in the house but we have vast quantities of books. These belong to all members of the family however I think the majority are hers. The other evening I set out to count how many books we have. I went from room to room and book case to book case. The answer I came up with was 1724. This is by itself quite staggering. The next morning I met Rowan for lunch. As we were walking from the bookshop she works in to the restaurant, I told her what I had done and asked her to guess how many I had counted. Quick as a flash she said, ‘About 1700’. I wonder how she did it. However on Sunday I discovered two more bags and half a book case that had been excluded from the count. At this moment I think we have about 1850 books although that excludes the ones in my office.

Rock of Ages: This is a recent (2012) American musical comedy adapted from a 2006 rock musical. The stars include country singer Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, also in it are Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise. It can best be described as light and fluffy. The story is of a girl going to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune as a singer. She meets a boy, loses the boy, and re-finds him as well as having a chance to perform. I enjoyed seeing Russell Brand in this film; he did a really good job.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: The un-promising premise for this film is that an asteroid is hurtling, inexorably, towards the earth. Humankind will be wiped out. The film opens with the news coming over a car radio that attempts to deflect it have failed. At this point the wife gets out and walks away leaving her husband of some years. He then links up with his neighbour and romance blossoms, all with a clear timeframe. It is a good, touching and thought provoking film. How would I react to the news of the end of the world? I had seen the reviews for this and wanted to watch it simply to see how the story was developed. I might even have gone to a cinema but as it was on the aeroplane I watched it there and enjoyed it. What was striking was the conclusion that most people would be phlegmatic and just get on with it.

Dark Shadows: This is a 2012 American horror comedy film. It is a Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp. The story is of a 200-year-old vampire who has been imprisoned in a coffin. When he is released, after murdering all the workmen who unearth him, he makes his way back to his mansion, inhabited by his rather odd descendants. It is fun fantasy and horror film – but aeroplane only!

Snow White and the Huntsmen: This is definitely a ‘watch on the aeroplane’ film. It is a new version of the Brothers Grimm German fairy tale Snow White. I watched it for the actors, in particular Charlize Theron and British actor Bob Hoskins for whom it was his last role before retiring. The special effects were quite outstanding. It was a British and American production.

Michael Lewis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, WW Norton New York 2011. The first book I read by Michael Lewis was also his first book, Liar’s Poker. This told the story of the culture in the investment houses and hedge funds before the crash in the 1990s. In Boomerang he visits a number of locations to try understand why the world faces such a financial crisis today. Each chapter is a fascinating insight into mismanagement. The first, ‘Wall Street on the tundra’ looks at Iceland. The second ‘and they invented maths’ is about Greece. He then looks at Ireland in the chapter ‘Ireland’s original sin’, passes through Germany ‘the secret lives of the Germans’ before ending in the United States, this final chapter is called ‘too fat to fly’. My main insights is the idea that we have ‘lizard brains’ which are set to acquire as much as we can of scarce things, especially food, safety and sex. This is ultimately the main lesson – the need to find ways to self-regulate rather than sacrificing long-term planning for short-term rewards. While the book is a very good read, it tells only half of the story, people do plan and regulate. The best example I have is the new airport built in Durban ahead of the World Cup in 2010. This is designed to last the city until 2070. How do we combine that sort of planning with the type of society we need? I think a spiritual life is necessary.

Shulasmith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: the Case for the Feminist Revolution, The Woman’s Press London 1979. This is not, I will be the first to admit, my usual reading. The reason for getting it is that I marked a feminist PhD thesis that left me feeling the need for more information and insight. This classic book has provided me with some perception into where the student was coming from. I really love the fact that The Woman’s Press has as its logo an iron. This sense of humour and forgive the pun, irony, is so refreshing and reminds me of the exciting times in the 1970s. It is a classic book and while not hugely readable is certainly worth glancing at.

On The Road Again: March 2011

The train journey from London to Norwich is one I have done countless times. On the third Sunday in February I flew from Durban to London, spent Monday at the DFID office in Palace Street (the building actually overlooks Buckingham Palace), then headed for Norwich to spend a few days with the family. It was dark by the time we pulled into Norwich in the late afternoon, I had forgotten how early the night begins in February in the UK. Long summer evenings make up for this to some extent, but it was still a shock.

On Friday I went back to Heathrow to fly to Boston for an International AIDS Society Executive Committee meeting. The railway company advertised wireless access on the train and I decided to try it. It cost only £2.95, which seemed reasonable. The signal was excellent the whole way down, better than mobile phones which fade in mid-conversation! It is a pity the battery on my computer is not keeping a charge at the moment. It is really good to see technology that works well.

I wish the same could be said for Virgin Atlantic. They were flying a small Airbus on the route from Heathrow to Boston, and the only way to get computer power was to spend £50 for a special adapter. The cabin controller explained to me that Virgin had ‘incidents’ when passengers left their laptops on and there was overheating and fires (I think she meant potential fires). I said that my usual carriers KLM/AirFrance and South African Airways did not have this problem, and why was that? There was no sensible answer. I gave her my card and she assured me that the airline would write and explain. I am still waiting for the letter. It may, of course, be that they do actually send a letter and it has gone to Durban, but surely most people use e-mail.

In my few weeks in Norwich in February and March, there was evidence that spring had finally arrived. There were snowdrops and crocuses out in the gardens, looking very pretty, and the daffodils appeared by the time I got back from the second trip. I love the scattering of flowers across the lawn, looking like islands of colour. There is a small pond next to my office window, and this year there were probably four or five pairs of frogs busily laying their eggs in it. There was been a chorus of croaking, which I have not heard before in the UK. It has taken a few years for the frog population to build up to this level. I wonder if part of the causality may be that the cat is older and less likely to hunt them. The pond will be full of tadpoles in a few weeks, then the garden crawls with tiny frogs.

I was in Durban for about five weeks in January and February, although it is hard to believe that looking back. I did get to the beach a few times with my body board, and can confirm that I really don’t know what I am doing. In a 45 minute session I am lucky if I manage to catch one wave! It is time to get a few lessons; fortunately the former boyfriend of one of Rowan’s friends was the KwaZulu-Natal champion body boarder so I know where to go. Learning to surf (well body board) was one of my 50th birthday resolutions. The other two were to learn to fly and ball room dance. It is possible to be bad at body boarding and dancing and I am; flying is another matter.

I normally dread February in Durban, it can be so very hot and humid. This year was surprisingly clement, and although I used the air conditioners, it was not excessive. Towards the end of last year I noticed a small bird nesting in the unit that cools the lounge. It had to be cleaned and serviced before it worked. My decision was to wait until the chicks had fledged and departed. Fortunately the Berea Gym, which is where I go in Durban, attracts a range of people and my trainer recommended one to do the work. It was at my convenience and a reasonable rate, both hugely advantageous for me. There is now a new wire mesh in place so the birds will have to look for a new site next year, they have been given notice. There are definite advantages in belonging to a good gym that attracts a range of people, from professors (at least three I know) to artisans.

The highlight of relaxing time in Durban (and there was not all that much of this), was going to listen to Mango Grove at the Botanic Gardens on Monday 14th February, a Valentine’s Day concert. I told the staff at HEARD that this was where I was going and that people were welcome to join me. There were not many takers! Why be surprised though, Valentine’s with the boss is not what people would immediately think of. It was a beautiful evening, not too hot fortunately and not raining, which is always a danger for events there. Sitting listening to great music of Africa with, as background sound, the piping of the tree frogs and the chirps of the fruit bats was a treat. The Gardens are an asset for the city, over 100 years old now.

An unexpected occurrence was the passenger window of my car falling into the door. This is one of the things that happens as the car ages. It is nearly 20 years old, but only has 120 000 kilometres on the clock. Another reason to be grateful for the weather is that the car’s air conditioning stopped working about five years ago. I was told that it was simply not worth getting it fixed, it would cost nearly as much as the car is worth. I don’t mind driving with the windows open though, an environmentally friendly, manual mode of cooling.

The team at HEARD is working really well. We have a large number of academic publications, which is one of the key metrics by which we are judged in a university setting. More than that, I believe that the work we are doing is influencing policy and even making a difference in people’s lives. The direction seems reasonably clear; we have a very good senior management team with Kay Govender having joined us from Psychology for two years as Research Director. Samuel Gormley has been there nearly a year now as the Operations Director. We even had good news, finally, on a grant that we ran for 10 years. The close-out accounting they produced suggested we needed to pay back about $40 000, our figures said we were due about $66 000. Having gone backwards and forwards our figures were finally accepted and this money will pay a salary for a year or more.

I hope that in the course of this year we will see a couple of staff graduate with PhDs, or at least submit them. There is a good chance that some can do this via the publications route. I need to find some time to sit with the CV’s and as we say in South Africa “make a plan”.

Having been in Boston for two cold days on the Sunday I went on to, even colder, Ottawa. Travelling is mostly fun and I am really lucky to be paid to do it. Leaving from Boston encapsulated the human condition with two vignettes. As I went up the escalator to the departure gate I looked back down to the arrivals area. There was a little tot of a girl, bundled up to the nines in a puffy pink coat, pulling her case which, standing up, would have been as tall as she was. She caught my eye, beamed at me and waved furiously. I wonder why? Then at the top of the top of the escalator were two airport staff, both Hispanic. He was weeping, red eyed and desperate; she was standing uncomfortably but clearly wanting to give solace. What was going on there? Airport stories are frustratingly fleeting. There was a US security officer who stood solemnly, watching the passengers who had passed through the screening. What was going though his mind, what a waste of a person. But perhaps not, it is a job and one of the real challenges we face in Southern Africa is employment creation.

From Ottawa I flew to Montréal and then to Geneva, a direct flight which was a blessing. I had the Sunday mostly free, found a gym, had a long workout but also did a great deal of work in the hotel room. I have been going to Geneva for a long time and have always found the hotels to be of a mediocre quality. This is one I had stayed in before, Hotel Rue des Alpes, and I have to say it is transformed. The rooms are comfortable, light and well furnished. Quite a change from the pokey, dark and expensive hotels I stayed in on previous visits.

I returned to the UK via Stansted airport on EasyJet. This was a complete shock; it is years since I was on a budget airline. The way costs are cut seems to be to reduce customer service to a minimum. I had my boarding card, it actually constituted the ticket. Arriving at the airport you are required to print your own baggage tag, not complicated for people who are used to doing this, but as a first timer I found it very stressful. When I get stressed I sweat, not an attractive sight at all.

The next step is to queue up and deliver your luggage to the check-in counter. As an EasyJet passenger you have no access to any lounges and once you board the plane there are no allocated seats. There was a trolley service but you pay for everything. The plane was about an hour late leaving and 30 minutes late getting in to Stansted and then there was a huge queue for the immigration control which I was not expecting. It is clear that budget travel has transformed the way people think about distances. My view is I would rather not travel at all if this is the way I have to do it. However this may be mediated by the fact that at the moment all my travel is paid for. I might have a different view in the future.

I was back in Norwich for a couple of days and we drove up to York for a night. The dog came with us; as did the dog food was in a rather nice Tupperware container. This was unfortunate because in the hotel in York I took a pinch of it and ate it thoughtfully, thinking it was muesli. I don’t know who was more offended, me or the dog. She looked at me with shock. Douglas had a day with a friend, and we went into Scarborough, a Victorian seaside town. It is really nice, and I observe that budget airlines and cheap travel mean that these resorts are battling to sustain themselves, a great pity. The town is nestled in a little hollow on the eastern coast in Yorkshire. There is a ruined castle sitting brooding on one of the headlands. There is a small harbour, which is used by fishing vessels and pleasure craft. The fishing boats ranged from tiny to trawlers with their own rubber ducks.

In mid-March I was invited to present at a briefing for the Africa All Party Parliamentary Group (AAPG) at the Houses of Parliament in London. The title was: ‘Swaziland: a kingdom in crisis? HIV AIDS, gender and rights’. This was a joint meeting between the AAPPG and the Royal African Society. The main speaker was Siphiwe Hlope, the founder and director of SWAPOL (Swazis for positive living). She is a powerful individual who spoke authoritatively and from the heart.

It is always amazing to go to the Parliament, the building is remarkable and to walk through the Great Hall where both Charles I and Guy Fawkes were tried and condemned gives one a sense of history. Today most people simply hurry through, oblivious to the story that the stones, have to tell. My brief intervention was to say: to understand the HIV epidemic in Swaziland, it is important to know the history of the kingdom. I believe, and this is what I am trying to write in my book, that colonialism, alienation of the land, capitalism, apartheid, gender relations, the monarchy and migration have all played a critical role in allowing HIV to get a foothold in the country and to spread so rapidly. If we understand the history we may be able to act.

I had a couple of weeks in the UK and then headed back to southern Africa. I will get to Swaziland for a Waterford Governing Council meeting and HEARD is hosting a number of conferences and trainings in Durban. One is on systematic reviewing; it is something I am very keen to attend as it seems a methodology that we can use in our research. It is a way of getting one’s head around the big picture. We will have someone from the South African Medical Research Council come up to Durban and teach it to over two days. Somehow I have to get going on the Swaziland book and finish it, it is long overdue. So let me end this update here.


RED is the story of ex-CIA agents being hunted down and killed because of an event they witnessed or were involved in decades earlier. It has an all star caste which included Helen Mirran and was great fun. I regard it as perfect airplane viewing.

The American by contrast was excellently made and full of suspense. It is the story of a hit man hiding out in a picturesque Italian village. The characters are well developed and sympathetically drawn. There were only three main characters; the hit man, a prostitute and a priest. The star is George Clooney, which is why I choose it in the first place. This was shown on the Virgin flight and all the entertainment was on a cycle which meant that it was important to be sure that you wanted to watch the film when it started! The ending was quite unexpected and moving.

Black Swan. This is a disturbing film. It is the story of a ballet dancer pushed to the limit. For me the big question was:’to what extent did she have agency’? Was she a helpless pawn in a system that takes people in, uses them, and spits them out or was this what she wanted? What was her mother’s role in this? The director came across as a total shit, but maybe that is the way you have to be if you are leading a company and have to turn out commercially successful productions. I am glad I saw it though and will now try to see ‘The King’s Speech’ which is what I have been looking for on the flights I have taken, but it has not been on.

Love and Other Drugs is a the only film not seen on a plane. It is a 2010 comedy based on the non-fiction book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. The story is of a young man who becomes a medical representative selling a Viagra. He meets and beds the patient of a doctor he visits, she is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The film describes how they negotiate their relationship and is done sensitively. It is typical aeroplane viewing, but I went to see it in a cinema.