A month ago, I wrote that we were waiting on tenterhooks for the swifts to return, and to see if there were any takers for the nest boxes we had installed. I am delighted to say that the birds arrived a couple of days after the post was published, although there have been no obvious takers for the ‘accommodation’ we are providing. Unfortunately, the swift box that plays swift calls developed a fault. I don’t want to attract swifts with laryngitis, so it was sent off for repair, but that meant we lost a couple of weeks. The sound of swifts is like lost souls wheeling and shrieking overhead, but the sight of them makes up for the sound.
It is many years since I included a ‘round robin’ in with Christmas cards and this, lazily, also constitutes my blog post for December. There is a good reason this year. I have significant news and don’t want to leave people out, or have to write it in all the cards I send.
You may recall in January 2014 I joined the Balsillie School in Waterloo, Ontario as a full time member of faculty. It is complicated appointment. My salary is paid by Wilfrid Laurier University, but I work at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Here I was, according to my letter of appointment, employed to teach two courses per year, and carry out the other responsibilities of a senior academic, including researching, writing and publishing.
About two years ago the University unilaterally, and with very little consultation, decided to change the conditions of service. They were, of course, made less favourable for academics. Of particular concern was the doubling of our teaching commitment. I came here because I had not, in 30 years as an academic, taught (two years of teaching one course at the University of Natal on Southern African Development in 1984 and 1985 had receded to a distant memory). I wanted to see what it would be like to work with and teach MA and PhD students. The idea of supervising a thesis from start to finish was intriguing, and I am happy to report that I did manage to do that with one student.
This new demand regarding teaching made staying in Waterloo problematic in the long term. I neither had courses prepared, nor much guidance on what to do. In addition to more teaching being mandatory my academic cohort was assured, when we signed up in 2012 and 2013, there would be research money available to us, without too many hoops to leap through. This promise evaporated like the dew in the Kalahari in January, although it was not entirely the fault of the university but rather the shocking behaviour of one of the other ‘partners’. In addition to this moving the goalposts, a part of the university bureaucracy was irrational to me. I have every intention of writing about this in due course.
I had not been in Waterloo for long when I was at a meeting on a very foggy day. I looked out of the window and declaimed:
“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”
This is from John Keats’ poem To Autumn, published in 1820. Everyone looked at me blankly. Doesn’t everyone know the romantic poets? Evidently not! My mind is a bin of snatches of poems and quotes. I can’t always quote them entirely accurately, but I do generally have something appropriate.
There is so much going on around the world that it is hard to know where to start. Britain remains on the edge of a cliff as the Brexit process continues to falter and stutter. So far Theresa May lost three crucial votes and was replaced by Boris Johnson. At the weekend, on 19th September, in an exceptional Saturday sitting, he lost the first vote seeking approval for his ‘deal’. I am not sure that anyone knows what is going to happen. I hoped that by the time I posted my monthly blog, things might be clearer. This does not seem to be the case, and the only credible way forward is to take the decision back to the country, either in a general election or a second referendum.
My sources of information are BBC World News and the occasional dip into the Canadian Broadcasting Service. Canada had an election for the Federal Government on the 21st September. The main parties were the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, the governing party going into the election; the Conservatives, led by Andrew Sheer, an oleaginous individual; the New Democrat Party (NDP), whose leader is a Sikh complete with turban (which he could not wear as a public servant in secular Quebec); and the Greens, lead by a faintly desperate looking woman. There is also Bloc Québécois (BQ) which advocates for Quebec nationalism and sovereignty. They are not a force outside Quebec. Interestingly, like the DUP in the British Parliament, they had 10 seats before the vote, but 34 after the polls closed. Finally there is the small The People’s Party of Canada, a splinter group similar to The Brexit Party in the UK.
I watched the results come in. The process was amazing as the CBC had excellent hi-tech coverage down to individual polling stations. This meant they were able to call results before all the constituency polls had been counted – although they did warn that these were preliminary tallies. The final outcome was 157 seats for the Liberals, 121 for the Conservatives, 32 for the Bloc, 24 for the NDP, three for the Greens and one Independent. Ironically the Conservatives got the most votes at 34.4%; Liberals’ at 33.1%; The New Democrats took 15.9% of the vote, followed by the Bloc at 7.7%, the Greens at 6.5% and the People’s Party at 1.6%. Of course there are more tiny parties, but none should be taken very seriously. It is clear that there will be a minority or coalition government. No bad thing in my opinion. Equally the green vote did not translate into seats!
Around the world from Lebanon to Chile, Barcelona to Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest against governments. Unfortunately these events frequently turn violent, but it should be noted that, at the time of writing, there have been few deaths. This is very striking and suggests restraint on the part of everyone, authorities and protestors alike. The reasons for the increase in protests range from climate change (which is having an insidious but serious impact) to unemployment to global anomie. This is, to my mind, the key concept. As originally developed by Émile Durkheim it is
“a social condition in which there is a disintegration or disappearance of the norms and values that were previously common to the society”
We have to respond to this upheaval, and not with repression.
There are three semesters at the Balsillie School, and across Canada. The Autumn term starts in September and ends just before Christmas; the Winter term is from January to April; and we are completing the Spring term which lasts from May to July. The terms are longer than in the UK and Europe at 12 weeks.
I taught two courses in the Spring and will teach two in the Autumn. Next calendar year (January 2020 to December 2020), I am on sabbatical and am very much looking forward to this. This is the first time I have been in Waterloo for the Spring term, and while it might have begun as spring it ended as summer – which is the one term we do not have. My word it was hot and humid for weeks at a time. Fortunately there were occasional thunderstorms that roiled across the region and brought some relief.
It has been very hot across much of Europe as well. We have a friend who has been in hospital in Norwich for some weeks now. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was opened in 2001. It was built on a greenfield site near the University, which means that UEA is able to offer medical degrees which was not the case when I was a student. It replaced a Victorian establishment in the centre of the city.
The new hospital is ‘state of the art’, except that there is no air-conditioning! This is OK for 10 months of the year. When there is a heatwave, as there was in July, it means that everyone from the consultants to the patients really suffers. It is miserable and sadly I don’t think there is any way that AC can be retrofitted into the building. The other major problem is that the hospital is not easy for the public to get to. It is an expensive and inconvenient bus journey, while those who drive have to pay car parking charges.
In my blog, posted at the end of March, I described the surgery I underwent in Durban. I also talked about going out a couple of times, with friends, to a really delightful little bakery/pizza restaurant in the neighbourhood. It does not even have a liquor licence; and this does tend to mean the evening is cheaper as one takes one’s own wine. Among those friends was Jurgen Brauninger and his family. I wrote in that blog:
‘On a personal level it is interesting to see my cohort, friends and colleagues ageing into their 60s, for the most part with grace and dignity. It is however a shock to us all – but, as I said to one friend, ‘it is better than the alternative’.’
Within two weeks of these dinners we learned, out of the blue, that Jurgen was not well. He was suffering from pancreatic and liver cancer, and was having difficulty in eating. After various consultations he was scheduled for urgent surgery to ease pressure on his duodenum. While this was not a cure, it was expected to improve the quality of his life. The surgery was carried out on 26 April (by the same surgeon who did my hernia); Jurgen did not recover and died on 6 May.
I want to pay tribute to a dear friend and colleague, a talented musician, but above all a devoted family man. I know Tania, Hannah and Brigitte will be torn apart by grief. Sitting in Canada I have felt very distant, but no less sad. I wish I had deep and meaningful forethoughts about this but I don’t, I just know I will miss him enormously. Andrew Marvell’s lines “But at my back I always hear, Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near”, were not written about death; they do seem very apt though.
The Brauningers lived a few houses up the road from us in Manor Gardens. Their children were similar ages to Rowan and Douglas. We celebrated many milestones together; Brigitte did the most amazing Easter lunches for the university crowd and others. The families went away together for a number of short holidays in the province. Everyone enjoying each other’s company, even braaing under umbrellas during a heavy rainstorm. Their home was an original ‘wood and iron’ house, this is one of the first Durban houses and relatively few are left standing. Jurgen, I and Ullie, one of his friends, purchased the house next door when it came on the market, in order to preserve it and the jungle of a garden for a little bit longer. Jurgen and Brigitte had just moved a few kilometers to a more modern house and were planning their retirement when this devastating event occurred. This has been a deeply sad time.
(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.
November was bifurcated for me: the first half in Waterloo and the second in Norwich. I was fortunate in that I left Canada before it became consistently and miserably cold. Unfortunately, while Norwich is warmer, it has been grey, dank and damp. In both locations, when the sun shines in winter it can be quite magical. An interesting fact: there is almost exactly an hour more sunshine in Waterloo than there is Norwich. The sun rises at about the same ‘local’ time; at present 07:15ish, but sets an hour later in Waterloo. We still have three weeks to go to the solstice! The travel to the UK was partly paid for by AIDSpan the Nairobi based NGO that produces the Global Fund Observer. I am on the board and we met in London. It was a great meeting since all is well with the organisation.
The UK is preoccupied by Brexit. During the time I have been here there has been constant, but not very helpful, discussion. Theresa May has managed to negotiate an exit agreement, which was agreed on the 25th November. She still has to get this through Parliament. Once (if) that happens, then the real negotiations start. We briefly thought the issue of Gibraltar would derail the process, but that crisis was averted. Currently fishing rights are being flagged as deal-breaking. The United Kingdom has an exceptionally long coast line and hence extensive territorial waters. Brexit is exceptionally depressing; we are giving away the future.
On the 8th of June Britain went to the polls. Theresa May called an early election in the expectation that she would strengthen her hand ahead of the Brexit negotiations. In her mind she would be returned to power with an increased majority. Two months ahead of the election the press was united in the view that this would happen, and the Labour Party, under the leadership of the demonised Jeremy Corbyn, would be crushed. Well that did not materialise. The Tories (Conservatives) won just 317 seats, and as there are 650 seats in the House of Commons this is not a majority. Labour gained 30 seats, giving them 262. It is now generally felt the winners lost and the losers won.
It is most unusual for the first of the month of the year to have come and gone without my having prepared a new blog. I’m not quite certain what happened. I can only think it was a combination of the pressure of teaching and preparation which distracted me. There is quite a lot to report, both events of the past month and ones for the next few months. I have been, and will continue to be, busy.
Normally when I post on the website I comment, at the end, on films I have seen or books I have read. This month’s post unusually begins with the two films I watched on the flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in early November. The first was the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It was excellent, thought provoking and depressing. The story is of a 59 year old scaffolder who is unable to work because of a heart problem. He is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of not getting the state benefits he should, because he is deemed fit enough to look for work. It is a searing indictment of the failure of the welfare state, increasingly the case in the UK. This is the result of global trends to elect people who don’t care, at least not in the way I was brought up. It made me ask what I would do if I had power, probably a basic income grant for all.
In Durban I am sharing the car with Rowan, who has travelled over to spend five months in South Africa. She has two days’ work a week in Umhlanga, so on those days I walk. There was a youngish white man, on crutches, begging on the street a few hundred metres from the flat. I asked him over to tell me his story and, in exchange, gave him a decent amount of money. He said he was a welder by trade. He lost the lower part of his left leg in a motor accident a few years ago. He said he was trying to scrape together enough money to replace his identity document in order to get work. He is living with his wife and child in one room in the town centre. How much of that was true? I don’t know. South Africa is a harsh society for people who don’t have resources.