Teeth and travel

At the beginning of October I developed a toothache. It persisted and got steadily worse. The dentist saw me immediately, for which I am very grateful, x-rayed the teeth, identified two abscesses, and gave me two antibiotics. One was anti-alcohol which meant I had a dry two weeks. The following week I was scheduled to fly to Johannesburg and drive to Eswatini (Swaziland). On the Monday there was a lump in my gum, and it was still very painful. I had an emergency appointment, the abscess was lanced, and the relief was immediate!

I am aware that there is a crisis in the UK regarding access to National Health Service Dentists, and so feel incredibly fortunate to have had this dealt with so promptly! The dentist in Norwich warned I would have to have root canal treatment. I visited my dentist in Durban who confirmed the diagnosis but said two teeth would have to be extracted, and I would need root canal treatment and implants. This will be done here, where, as a pensioner, I have a generous medical aid scheme.

My travelling had been in some doubt, but I was able to get on the 6am plane from Norwich to Amsterdam and connect to Joburg. The plane was packed; however, I had a huge stroke of luck, the person next to me on take off was the father of one of the flight crew. After we were in the air he disappeared so there was an empty seat the whole way! These things make a difference.

Unusually I binge watched films. Elvis is basically the story of Elvis Presley, his manager Colonel Parker and their destructive and difficult relationship. Once I had invested an hour in it, I had to keep on watching, albeit slightly resentfully. It is not a film I recommend, and it was disappointingly short on music. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is basically Nicholas Cage playing himself, but there were a few interesting twists in the plot. The best of the bunch was The Outfit. It is a complicated plot involving a British tailor operating an establishment in Chicago in the 1950s, and laundering mob money. I won’t say any more about the story as it is worth seeing, but note the entire film is shot in the tailor’s shop (apart from a couple of frames showing people walking in snow).

After staying over at an airport hotel in Johannesburg, I collected a car for the drive to Mbabane. Yet again I was pulled over by the traffic cops: 100 kph in an 80 kph zone. The officer informed me the fine was R750, I went and looked at the camera and said, ‘fair cop’, and I would do the electronic transfer when I had internet access. He walked me back to the car and we chatted. In the end he said he had not filled my personal details in the form, and I could go. Was he expecting a bribe? I honestly don’t know, but all he got was a warm handshake, and a promise that I would donate R500 to a charity of his choice, he said, it should be ‘children’.

The main reason for the trip was to attend the wedding of Nathi Dlamini and Joanna Patouris. I first met Nathi in Waterloo in 2014. I asked the Waterford alumni organisation to give me the names of anyone in the area. He was doing a degree at the University of Waterloo. Joanna was also at Waterford, indeed that is where they met and became a couple back in 2003. She went to a university in the US on a Shelby Davis Scholarship. Over my time in Waterloo, I got to know Nathi and, through him, Joanne. It was great, despite the difference in age, to connect with people from Swaziland and Waterford. I was flattered and honoured to be invited to the wedding.

I was able to catch up with the National Emergency Response to HIV and AIDS (NERCHA) team in Mbabane and visit Waterford for lunch on Friday. On the Saturday I had lunch with Derek von Wissell, the original head of NERCHA and someone who was very influential in my career. I first met him in the mid-1980s when I was researching industrial incentives in Southern Africa, and he was the Minister of Commerce. I pointed out to him that Swaziland could not compete with the incentives being offered in Botswana. He dismissively said, “Why would anyone want to go there, it is just one long dusty street”. This I have long remembered as a momentous comment. He went on to serve briefly as the Minister of Finance, and then for many years as the Minister of Health. He was in post through the worst of the AIDS pandemic.

Photo of a statue at House on Fire, Malkerns Eswatini

House on Fire, Malkerns Eswatini

The main event was, of course, the wedding. It was held in the lush, green gardens of House on Fire in Malkerns. The venue is absolutely stunning, and I would urge readers to visit the website. It includes a restaurant, craft shops, music venues and an events tent. I have included one photograph of part of the building, but it does not show the magnificent location or the pineapple fields! There is a Waterford connection there as well, the owner is an alum and his mother, Jenny Thorn, taught at the school in the early years. I well remember how she dealt compassionately with me during a severe attack of homesickness. My initial time at the school was marred by the fact I had a hookworm infestation in my intestines. I remember the crippling pain, which was initially thought to be psychosomatic because of my first boarding school experiences.

The ceremony was conducted by a Padre of the Greek Orthodox Church in a clearing in the garden. There were rows of chairs for the guests. When I sat down, I discovered that the ground was so soft the legs of the chair sank a good four inches into the ground. I note that this is another reason for losing weight, so as not to disappear in these settings. The wedding invitation included a very thoughtful description of the ceremony. I have lifted part of this. In the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church there are two services – the Engagement Service and the Service of Crowning. Most of the rituals: blessing the rings and passing them back and forth; and crowning the couple were done three times. It was like nothing I have ever seen before, and it was a pleasure to be there. Thanks to the antibiotic I was unable to drink any alcohol and so I think I was more aware than I might have been.

Photo of a Male Weaver Bird building a nest

Male Weaver Bird

On the trip and here in Durban I became aware of the weaver birds furiously building their nests. The first place was the Ngwenya border post. I took a picture of a male (nest building bird and a nest) off the web and include it. They live in colonies, so if one is not made aware of the birds by their frenetic activity and noise, the white stains on the ground or pavement are a giveaway. My relationship with the birdlife around the flat is more complex, I am on the third floor and so am level with the trees. The first bird calls are at 3.30 and they really get going at 4.30. I don’t appreciate this.

It has been a month since I last posted to my website. I will be in Durban for at least a month and then will travel to Cape Town from where I will fly back to Norwich for Christmas. I must renew my South African passport and won’t be able to travel until this is done. It is a slow process! I suppose one of the main goals of this trip is to think about what to do next. The three certain consequences of retirement are: there is no longer a salary or wage coming in every month; one loses status; and there is so much more time. I think I am more fortunate than most: our resources are sufficient; I keep the Professor Emeritus title; and I do have things I want to do. The last is the most difficult as one has to set one’s own deadlines.

Well, that must be it for the October blog. I really appreciate the 400+ people who subscribe and get notifications from us. I am always open to feedback, either through my website or an email to me awhiteside1956@gmail.com

Have a good spring or autumn wherever you are.

Back to the Heatwave

I returned to the UK in mid-August after spending just under three weeks in Canada. As I said in my last posting I did not think I would be able to travel, as I had Covid. Fortunately, I started testing negative a few days before the scheduled departure. It was an interesting trip. The first part was to attend the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting ahead of the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. I then travelled down to Waterloo for 10 days. It was great to reconnect with many friends.

There were changes and sights that really shocked me though. In Montreal we saw a young woman attacked by a vagrant at 7.30 in the morning. She got away before we could intervene, and went to a nearby police car. When I arrived at the Kitchener station, there was a tent camp next to the railway line. The sight of tents and tarpaulins providing shelter to many people was totally unexpected. Worse was to come, I was told there was another informal settlement in, the rather special, Victoria Park, next to the first house I rented. The person who gave me this information warned that it might not be safe to go too close, a telling comment in and of itself! The formerly pristine park is home to another encampment. In South Africa it would be called a squatter camp!

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Pandemics and travels

It has been an inordinately long time since I last posted to my website. A lot has happened. In early July I travelled from Durban to Cape Town for a few days, seeing friends and staying with Derek and Lynn (my brother and wife). On Sunday 10th July I flew from Cape Town back to Norwich via Amsterdam. By Thursday I had a scratchy throat, headache, cough, and a metallic taste in my mouth. A day later I tested positive for Covid-19. The virus I had written so much about got me! I was not seriously ill, but it was not pleasant. I am convinced I was infected in an airport or on a plane.

I was due to travel to Montreal for the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting ahead of the International AIDS Conference on Monday 25th July. Although I do not believe I was infectious, travelling seemed unwise. I was very relieved to consistently test negative in the days before I flew. At one point I thought my attendance was in doubt which would have been difficult for my colleagues as we were co-organising a meeting.

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Reconnecting with the country

Earlier this month I did a six-day road trip from Cape Town to Durban. My travelling companion was an old friend: a gaunt, chain smoking (when he had the chance and not in the car, hotels or restaurants), grey haired academic, who shall be called Sancho, after Don Quixote’ Sancho Panza, he was going to remain nameless, but that did not work. We have been friends for over 35 years, having originally met on the touch rugby field in Durban in the 1980s. The game took place, once a week, for well over 20 years. It was ‘the left’ at play, and some deep long-term friendships developed.

I am not going to make this a ‘traditional’ travelogue, so let me quickly get the description of the trip out of the way. I will put in the links throughout.

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Funerals, Memorials and Spring

We are waiting on tenterhooks for the swifts to return to Norwich. In summer 2021, we had six nest boxes installed, under the eaves, on the side of the house. It was too late for that breeding season, so we will only learn if the birds find them attractive in the next few weeks. We are told to encourage them by playing recordings of swifts calling. The conservationists warn that it may take a couple of years before birds choose to nest in our boxes.

The story of swifts is a counterpoint to sadness I have experienced over the last weeks. In early May we attended the funeral service of Joan Watts (3 June 1926 to 8 April 2022). A long life and, as the person who took the service told us, a happy and good one. We knew her as the sister of Arthur Duffield, whom Ailsa had befriended as part of her bereavement support network. Arthur died two years ago. He was a widower and as neither he nor his sister had children, that direct lineage ends. Joan lived and managed on her own, amazing considering she had a leg amputated.

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Of Birds and Viruses

I have officially been retired since Saturday 1st January, or perhaps, to be pedantic, since midnight on 31st December 2021. I must confess to feeling a little uncertain as to what the future holds. There needs to be a plan, budget, and cash flow projection, all but the first can be done quickly. The Covid crisis has made planning difficult. I really want to do some travelling, but it is hard to book tickets with any confidence. This is changing slowly though. It is hard to believe that the world began this seismic shift just two years ago. I became aware of this new disease in January 2020. I had no idea how rapidly and far it would spread, or the incredible disruption it would cause. More on this later.

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The clock ticks

I was shocked to see it has been over a month since I last posted. I have two countdowns going on in my life. The first, at the end of 2021 I will get my last salary cheque. Apart from a few short ‘student type’ jobs, since 1980 I have always had someone paying me a regular income. The short jobs in Swaziland included working for a school book supplier one holiday, and a week as a ‘hanger round’ at the Central News Agency in Mbabane. In the UK I spent a week packing bulbs (tulips and daffodils) etc. in a warehouse, ironically in the industrial site near where we live. I was fired for being too bolshy. I also spent three summer months as a warehouseman in Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. The second milestone is, in March 2022, on my 66th birthday, I become eligible for a British State pension.

Most young people, certainly those under 40, see people aged 50 to 80 here as an exceptionally fortunate generation. This is true for a high proportion of us. We had access to free university education, jobs, and many will get a state pension that, while not hugely generous, is significant. We were able to travel widely. We only became aware of the appalling damage we have wrought on the world, in terms of over exploitation and environmental damage, as we were doing it.

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What’s next, I ask?

Welcome to the first of my monthly, meandering blogs, put on my website, and emailed to everyone who signed up to receive my news. Let me begin with a warning, this is not primarily about Covid, so you may wish to take yourself off the list. Obviously, I am still following Covid, but no longer closely, and certainly not enough to write regular posts. Having said that here is something everyone should read – “How the risk of side effects could change with Covid-19 vaccine boosters” – we are all, probably going to offered these soon.

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Warning: mostly not about Covid-19, but On Operations and Lockdowns

This is not a Covid-19 communique but rather a standard blog post. Don’t feel you have to read on. The reason for the change in emphasis this week is that Covid-19 events simply passed me by. The explanation is that I was engaged with the National Health Service (NHS), finally having elective surgery for an umbilical hernia. It has been a long road to get here, I am relieved to have it sorted.

I have always considered myself fit (but overweight), playing squash, touch rugby and running. A few years ago, I noticed I was developing bulge in my belly button. It was confirmed as an umbilical hernia. All the sources of advice: doctors and the internet recommend these occurrences need to be dealt with, and that means surgery. Two years ago, I arranged to have the hernia operation in Durban. It could have been a day surgery but, stupidly, I decided to spend the night after the operation in the hospital. It was that or go back to the flat. The surgery was straightforward, the hospital experience was not great. Unbelievably the morning began, at 05h30 am, with inappropriately cheerful nurses. I was on a men’s ward where all had more serious conditions and concerns, and felt somewhat fraudulent.

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Pollen and polling

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.

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