Scrambled Tofu and Biplanes

Soon the university and school terms begin in the Northern hemisphere, and that is the harbinger for shorter and colder days. The cat has already started spending her days sleeping inside the house, ideally on clean washing! It has been a pleasant August here in Norwich, and I have actually been in Norfolk for most of the month, which is really quite remarkable. We did do a trip up to Goole to visit Ailsa’s mother and help with the house. We decided to spend four days away. On the first we drove to Hull via Lincoln, where we met friends from Durban. We had lunch at a rather disappointing vegan restaurant. It was subsequently pointed out to me by my family, with much hilarity on their part, that what I had thought was scrambled egg was, in fact, tofu dyed yellow! Talk about misleading! The plum bread, what a promising name, was a meagre slice of fruit cake, in which plums may have predominated, but it was served with butter.

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Heavy Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off

The heading of this blog was the headline in the London Times on October 22, 1957. At least, when I Googled the source, that is what the Harvard International Review of summer 2012 alleged. With results of the referendum now in, it feels as though the island has now cut itself from Europe, and done so willingly. I will return to this later in the blog.

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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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Honours and Journeys

Honours and Journeys

It is hard to know where to begin this posting. Perhaps the best place is, as per normal, with a flight. I left Canada on 24th March to travel to Norwich, via Amsterdam, the usual route. On the way over I watched one film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It is about the life of Second World War British code breaker Alan Turing. He was a gay man who took his own life as a result of the persecution he faced after the war. One has to feel relieved that our society has moved on since then. It was an excellent film and I can recommend it.

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Cancelled planes and the run up to Christmas

In the last couple of weeks I have had two short spells in Canada split by one in the UK. I have just been in London for a board meeting for AIDSpan, an NGO based in Nairobi. Its mission is to ‘reinforce the effectiveness of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by serving as an independent watchdog of the Fund and its grant implementers’. I really enjoy these meetings and have a sense the organization is doing something worthwhile. We are a small board, just six people, and work well together.

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The Role of the Fool

It is about a month since I last put anything on the website so this is timely. I travelled from Durban to Norwich early in May. The main reason was Douglas’s 18th birthday on 9 May, hard to believe that time has passed so quickly. I managed many other events and meetings. The first was a seminar on the ‘Political Economy and Social Drivers of the Epidemic’ held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. There was a public meeting the day before the main seminar and I was invited to present, along with Hein Marias, a South African colleague, who has written widely and wisely in this area. It was a smallish meeting and a chance to interact with a group of mostly United Kingdom-based academics. Perhaps the major lesson was we are still not taking enough notice of the political impact of AIDS. Obviously the epidemic is not homogenous and it will not have the same effect in every country, but it does have an important, and usually, ignored political impact. All the other meetings in the past month have reaffirmed this view.

After a few days in Norwich I flew to Berlin for a conference on Financing for Health and Social Protection. The title was: ‘A Global Social Protection Scheme – Moving from Charity to Solidarity’. It was organised by a friend of mine, Gorik Ooms, who is currently at the University of Antwerp. Among other things I was one of the examiners for his PhD, and he came on a course in Durban over 10 years ago. The main sponsors were Medico International and the Hélène de Beir Foundation with two  German Funders: Deutshe Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (more easily known as giz) and Bundesministerium für wirsschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Enteicklung (the Foreign Ministry, I think). These names are dreadfully long.

The idea being put forward is to develop a global compact to provide a basic level of social protection, as a right, to everyone across the world. It is a most interesting, but probably very difficult to sell, idea. The key point Gorik makes is, while today the rich world would expect to provide support to the poor, in years to come the situation might be that countries such as Brazil might be providing support to others. It works on the principle that the poor are not going to always be with us. This, of course, goes against many deep beliefs about how we operate. The Christian hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ included a verse.

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

He made them, high or lowly,

And ordered their estate.

The website where I got this, says of this stanza: “Most hymnals omit the following verse.” It points to the concept that wealth and poverty are divinely predetermined. Then there is the question of whether we need to feel better than people around us, materially and spiritually. Nonetheless I think there are very good arguments for the universal social protection and I shall, in my small way, be supportive of it. There is a role for people like Gorik to be bold and imaginative. The concept of the Fool in the medieval court was an individual who could tell truth to power, all the while in the guise of humour and fun. King Lear, which I studied for my ‘A’ levels, has a Fool who plays the role of commentator on the events around him. I think it is a part I play on occasion, certainly humour is important in messaging.

It is standard practice with meetings and conferences for there to be some kind of outing: a reward to the participants for their involvement. In Berlin this was a trip on the river through the centre of the city. We got on one of the tourist riverboats and went up and down the river for a couple of hours. There was food on the boat, German cuisine at its best, and this included sauerkraut, which I am very fond of, and plenty to drink. Perhaps the most striking thing was the remnants of the Berlin Wall. In one place, where the river had constituted the border between East and West, there were a number of crosses painted on the wall to commemorate those shot while trying to swim to freedom, very poignant.

On Sunday 20 May I flew to Toronto and was taken to the town of Waterloo. This part of Canada was mainly settled by Germans: Mennonites and Lutherans. The next town was originally called Berlin, but in 1916 the patriotic Canadians changed the name, calling it Kitchener after the British general who was Secretary of State for War. They turned their backs on the German heritage – but today it has (apparently) one of the best Oktoberfest’s in Canada. I will say more about this trip in a future posting. The town has two universities: Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier and is only about an hour and 20 minutes away from the international airport at Toronto, along an excellent road network. This was a pleasant surprise because I had thought it was a long way. I got back to Norwich on the Thursday and, as is usual with these transatlantic trips, it took me about a day to catch up with myself.

Then it was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee! This was marked in a number of ways: in London there was a river pageant, concert, service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s and procession through the city. It was marked in the provinces by street parties and various festivities organised by the local communities, cities and counties. Many places were supposed to have street parties but sadly the weather was rotten: raining and cold. I watched the river pageant and was hugely impressed by the level of organisation, the number of boats and the sheer spectacle including many events on the banks as the royal barge passed by. That really was about all I saw of the whole thing. It struck me that the level of public involvement was rather lower than normal (and than expected). While the Queen is hugely respected, with good reason, the rest of the Royal family is rather letting her down. I hope she enjoyed it.

I went down to London on the second of the two public holidays, 5 June; to help run a meeting for the Rush Foundation www.rushfoundation.org This website is well worth looking at. Rush is a new foundation focused on funding disruptive, innovative ideas in the fight against HIV in Africa. The founders, Marina Galanti and Kim Duncan, set out to ‘provide fast, effective funding for alternative ideas to address the pandemic and its social effects’. They have, in two short years, managed a number of innovative initiatives.

The meeting was set up to ask: What is ‘A new economic framework for better HIV decision making in sub-Saharan Africa’? The basic underlying premise is there will have to be choices made on how to deploy money, especially in the context of declining resources. When we started thinking about who to invite to such an event we made a list of people we really wanted to see there. We sent out the invitations and to my delighted amazement nearly everyone accepted. We had Sir Roy Anderson from Imperial College giving the keynote speech. Peter Piot the current head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and former executive director of  UNAIDS and Paul Collier of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University gave the opening presentations. Nearly everyone stayed for the full two days (as they should have). Careful planning meant that each person had something to do: presenting, chairing or reporting. Round tables also worked in ensuring engagement. The catering was the best I have had a meeting, not stodgy and very tasty. Even the coffee was reasonable.

The calibre of participants was exceptional and international. I was particularly delighted that there was representation from Swaziland, South Africa and Botswana. Everyone was invited in their personal capacities rather than representing institutions. The background paper, written by Chris Desmond who began his working career at HEARD, was excellent. The venue was the Royal Geographical Society, located opposite to Kensington Gardens. The room we used had a scale model of Mount Everest and the surrounding peaks. In addition there were photographs and portraits of explorers of earlier eras on the wall. It was a great place. I was pleased with the outcome of the meeting. There were both innovative and important new ideas, including some which can be put into action soon; it will be good to see some quick wins.

Our outing for this meeting was amazing and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to beat it. It was to go to the Royal Opera House in Covent Gardens to see the Royal Ballet performing ‘The Prince of the Pagodas’, choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and music by Benjamin Britten. This is the first full-length professional ballet I have ever seen. It was an amazing experience and we were treated like royalty. We arrived early and were given a backstage tour, taken to a private area for drinks, and our glasses were refilled in both the intervals. After the event we had a sit down dinner with members of the cast. There were two cast members on my table – one of whom had played the Fool. In the ballet his role is to orchestrate the events for the principles. The venue was plush and wonderful, there are some new bits and they have been well designed and built.

Details of the ballet can be found on Wikipedia (of course), and there are not very kind reviews in the press- the Independent’s here. Reading the review it struck me the reviewers know a huge amount about the art of ballet and the scores and their complaints are with Britten more than the cast and directors. However I thought it was amazing. The director of the Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason, joined us for dinner. Apart from having been with the company for 54 years (she retires in a few months), and being completely elegant and gracious, she was born in Johannesburg and came to London with her family to dance at the age of 16. The whole event: meeting, accommodation and outing were so well organised and it was an intellectual treat as well.

Films Reviews

The long haul flights to Canada gave me a chance to catch up with films.

Iron Lady

The story of Margaret Thatcher. In it she is shown as an old lady and it is a series of flash backs. As I lived through a part of the Thatcher Government it was most interesting to see this interpretation of the time. She took power in 1979 and was Prime Minister until 1990. I was in Botswana during the Falklands War (and my view was that of course they had to be taken back, but this was not everyone’s feeling). It was rumoured that when Argentine invaded the Islands the British High Commission was told to open their safe and take out a particular envelope. When it in turn was opened it had instructions on ‘what to do if the Falklands are invaded’. Meryl Streep is excellent as Thatcher especially the portrayal of the struggle with dementia; she deservedly got an Oscar for the part. It is actually quite sad to reflect how old age can, but not necessarily, rob a person of independence and a place in life.  Richard E Grant from Waterford and Swaziland had a part in the film.

J Edgar

A second movie about a powerful individual, this is the story of J Edgar Hoover who set up the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, having been director of the Bureau of Investigation the predecessor to the FBI from 1924. He died, in harness in 1972 aged 77. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Part of the plot was the possible gay relationship between Hoover and his deputy; this was more than hinted at in the film. We learn from the film that Hoover’s mother was anti-gay and this clearly had a deep impact on him. The story of the Lindberg baby kidnapping was presented as one of the main reasons the FBI gained so much power through the use of science to track down and convict the kidnapper.  I found it a deeply fascinating story, but troubling to see how power can become the end rather than the means, and how, once it is entrenched, it is so hard to shift.

Back In Durban January – February 2010

A quick look at my Website tells me that I haven’t posting anything for nearly two months. So let me bring you up to date with what I’ve been doing. Christmas and New Year were spent with the family in Norwich. It was cold but a lot of fun and generally enjoyed by all. My sister came up from London for the Christmas period but we were on our own for New Year.

Douglas and I spent a great deal of time working on various essays, reviews and other pieces of course work for his GCSE exams. This was productive and, I hope, bonding.

“Read it aloud, and if you have take a breath, it needs a comma or a full stop”, I kept repeating as we went through essays. I am afraid that the HEARD staff are getting the same treatment as I review their work.

Douglas and I also went to the gym together, and although he is not yet 16, we went to the exercise room instead of just the pool, sauna and steam room as we have done in the past. It was deeply interesting to sit beside him on the rowing machine and look in the mirror and see the similarities and differences. Would that I were his weight.

I returned to South Africa on 11th January. I actually delaying my journey by 24 hours as there was heavy snow and major disruptions on the Saturday and I thought it was not worth risking traveling by rail, (services are always disrupted on a Sunday anyway), and getting frustrated. The journey was quite straightforward, I got to Heathrow Airport at 5.15pm and asked the check-in staff if they could get me on the earlier flight, at 6.00 p.m. rather than at 8.30pm.

The lady asked me, “can you run”.

“Yes” I said.

I made it plane with plenty time although I didn’t stop to buy anything to read which was a bit of a pity.

It was good to get back to Durban, especially since winter has been unrelenting in the UK. My flat was spick and span courtesy of Madeline who acts as my personal PA and Angel the domestic worker; the office was set for me. I spent about week in the Durban before going to Cape Town for a Council for Foreign Relations meeting on “Rolling out treatment across South Africa”.

I now have more relatives in Cape Town as Derek my brother his wife Lynn and their three children, Emily, Sarah and Katie have emigrated to South Africa and are living in Hout Bay. I spent two nights in central Cape Town, went and had lunch with my uncle and aunt and then spent the Friday night with Derek. He is currently negotiating having teenage children who want to go to nightclubs in central Cape Town. I do not envy him. The family has a magnificent house in the valley in Hout Bay with a beautiful view of the mountains.

The main task in HEARD has been to get our new strategy document ready. This along with a business plan, budget and logframe (I really hate logframes and am glad we have an expert to prepare it) will form the basis of our request for funding for the next few years. We have had positive indications so I am confident that HEARD will continue at until 2014, and given the HIV prevalence rates in this part of world, it certainly should. Beyond that I would like to see more emphasis on health issues and not just HIV.

In the third week of January it was back to the UK, leaving Durban on a Friday and returning to it on the following Wednesday. The purpose of this meeting was to review five special papers from the aids2031 Project that are being prepared for publication in The Lancet. The meeting was organized by The Imperial College Group. It was extremely interesting and I was privileged to be part of a small high-powered group. My task was to look at the “drivers of the epidemic” paper written by a colleague, Justin Pathurst, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I liked reviewing it as I was able to have some fun with it.

I spent the weekend in Norwich with the family and, apart from being rather tired, enjoyed it greatly. I went to London on the Monday back to Norwich on the Tuesday and flew to South Africa on the Wednesday.

One irritation was that on the way over I had watched a film “Secondhand Lions” with Michael Caine and Robert Duval. It was made in 2003 and is described as a ‘coming of age’ movie. The story is set in the mid-West and tells of a boy who is sent to live with his uncles by his rather scatty mother. These old men have led amazing lives the film is about their developing relationship. It is well worth watching and I thought I was going to enjoy it. However an hour and nine minutes into the film the picture and sound went out of synchronization. It was impossible to watch. Having had a sufficiency of wine I decided quite simply to go to sleep as it seemed pointless despite numerous attempts at resetting the seat to watch it.

I was delighted, on the return trip, to see that the in-flight entertainment system was showing the same films and looked forward to now watching this movie through to the end. I got a glass of wine, fast-forwarded the video and at the appropriate time pressed play. You can imagine my dismay when the same thing happened.

I think I was on the same aeroplane. This makes sense, it would have taken me over on the Friday, returned to South Africa on Saturday, to England on the Sunday, to South Africa on the Monday, to London on the Tuesday and then been there on the Wednesday to bring me back. I watched another film, a mindless thriller called “The Whole Nine Yards”. On Saturday I went to the local DVD store and got a copy of the video took it home and watched the last half hour.

Since getting back to Durban I have been extremely busy with HEARD management. This is the third weekend in a row that I have worked. Being here lends itself to physical activity and I have been engaged in squash and going to the gym. My gym is curious place because it is mainly inhabited by serious fitness people who do not look at each other, other than to correct posture or weight lifting. We collectively feel this is a place to get fit not to pose. Their website is http://www.fitnesscompany.co.za/FC_home.php I have had a trainer at the gym, (yes a personal trainer), for some years now and when I work in a sustained manner with him I do see the weight and inches falling off. His name is Wade and being weighed by Wade is always an interesting process. He is only allowed to train out of hours or at lunch time. He does train me on a Sunday afternoon with permission from the owners. The gym is officially open from 4.30 to 6.30pm but we meet at 3.15 and I have the entire place to myself. I realized the other day that this is pretty cool, and I can choose the music. I think I am going to a Dolly Parton CD in to train to!

It is the height of summer in Durban and the temperature has been 30 degrees and more during the day. The flat is on the top floor and as a result it tends to be rather warmer than the ones below. Fortunately it has air-conditioning units in the lounge and bedroom. We recently had a power failure. This was a real pain as it meant that I was unable work or run the air-conditioner. I also discovered I did not have any matches to light my candles. I had to go to one of few smokers in the block to get a light.

Summer also means that the sun rises at about 5.00am. One morning I woke at 4.30 and despite trying to go back to sleep could not. I got up at 5.00 put on my running shorts and shoes and ran for 40 minutes. I go straight up the hill along and then down and then gradually back. I know I am not running fit because the route that normally takes me 35 minutes took me 38 this morning. I had to walk up the steepest hill at the end which was a blow to my pride.