Month One of English Living

Now that I am in Norwich for a spell I am in the process of organising my office and activities. This involves something of a clear out. I have been going through huge quantities of paper. Many printed papers have been recycled, the realisation is that I am neither going to reread or refer to them.

Books get appraised for their usefulness now and in the future, and there is a high bar if they are to remain. I probably have 300 CDs and they too need to be gone through. Anything that I am uncertain about is being put on the player. If there are scratches on the disc, or it is something I will never listen to, it either goes in the bin or the charity pile. In a few months I expect to have a very much more habitable and organised office.

Since London is where so many interesting things happen, I anticipate going down reasonably regularly. This is made easier because the ‘over 60’ railcard I have makes travel more affordable. In addition, to my surprise on looking at the train timetable, I discovered there is now a train that has cut 30 minutes off the two-hour journey, a few times a day. That does make it a great deal easier to travel down. I went at the end of January for the day – leaving Norwich at 9.30 and getting back at 10.30, not sadly, on the fast train.

Decades ago, I joined the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS). This was a club on Northumberland Avenue, very close to Trafalgar Square and only about 100 yards from the Embankment station on the Circle Line. When I first joined it was a bit dusty and old fashioned, but the club had a library, meeting rooms, a restaurant, lounge, bar and bedrooms. It was a great place to hang out and meet people. I organised meetings, seminars and dinners there and even, occasionally, stayed overnight. Unfortunately, over a period the offering dwindled, first the bedrooms, then the meeting rooms, until the club finally closed in 2013. I had been pondering what to do to get a London base and came up with a solution earlier this year.

In 2009 I was appointed as a Senior Research Fellow for the British Department of International Development. I held this fractional post for several years. It was great fun and I really enjoyed the experience of working in the Civil Service. This means I will get a small British Government Civil Service pension. It also meant, I realised, that I was eligible to join the Civil Service Club, very close to where the RCS was. The address is ‘Great Scotland Yard’! I applied and was accepted. The fees are modest, which is a real plus. Towards the end of January, I had occasion to visit London. I went to the club for the first time and got my membership card sorted out. I would not describe it as modern or flashy, but it has all the amenities one could want, and it is a place one can meet people, hangout and relax without feeling pressure to consume. There is a very nice patio for the summer and the street is extraordinarily quiet.

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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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The Meaning of Life

Half of September was in South Africa and half in Norwich. I travelled from Norwich to Cape Town via Amsterdam on the 1st September. This visit was to oversee the scientific writing course we held in Stellenbosch. The KLM flight takes over 11 hours and seemed very long, especially since these days I usually travel in economy. I am very grateful for my ‘Life Time Platinum Elite’ frequent flyer status as it gives me seating choices and lounge access. This practically means I usually get a bulkhead seat with more leg room, and that really makes a difference over long flight.

The 2nd (Sunday) was a free day and on Monday the participants started arriving. The programme is mainly taught by my friend and colleague, Tim Quinlan, whom I have known for close to 30 years. He came to Durban to teach at the University of Durban-Westville, which in those apartheid days was the ‘Asian’ higher education establishment. He subsequently joined HEARD as the first Research Director. This is the second year that he has run this programme with me. I am very lucky to also have as the main recruiter and administrator Nick Zebryk, who did a degree at the Balsillie School, and was my first (and last) full time research assistant in Waterloo. He managed the application process, and travelled to South Africa to troubleshoot. Thanks to his hard work there was no trouble to shoot!

We had 16 people from across Africa. On this occasion the largest number were from Malawi (four). I had taken some flack last year as six people were from Swaziland and this was seen favouritism. Everyone came with work in progress, and both Tim and I met with individuals to go through their manuscripts. We finished on Friday morning and on Saturday I went to Cape Town and spent a night in the City Lodge at the Waterfront. Firstly I wanted time by myself and the hotel is ideal for that; second I had a lunch meeting with the acting editor of the Global Fund Observer. This is run by a Kenyan-based NGO AIDSpan and I am on the board. As with all donor funded organisations, there is the constant need to raise funding and this means being relevant and supportable. Fortunately, so far, this has not been an issue for us.

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Sun and sea (with showers)

In my last post I wrote about how little rain there had been in Norwich. Thank heavens the drought has broken. Over the month we had periods of decent rain. This was perfect, it thoroughly soaked the ground and filled the water butts. It was as though every plant in the garden heaved a collective sigh of relief and reached their leaves heavenward. In the dog days of summer they are doing their best to make up for lost time and get as much growing, flowering and pleasure in before the cooler nights begin. Trees are no longer shedding leaves because of lack of water, heat and stress. Along the highways and byways of Norfolk gardeners are selling excess produce on tables and little huts. It is an honour system whereby one stops, selects what one wants, and leaves money. We are at the beginning of Autumn, as described by Keats in his 1819 poem; the first stanza is below.

Ode to Autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

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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 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.