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, http://www.fitnesscompany.co.za/FC_home.php 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 http://www.mangogroove.co.za 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.