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.

The service was held in a Baptist Chapel in the Broadland tourist town of Salhouse, about 20 miles away from our house, a mere 30-minute drive. English Heritage records that the chapel was built in about 1800, so it is an important part of the ecclesiastical history of the region. There is not much more information anywhere else though, which is a pity.

There are a small number of marble memorial plaques on the walls. I counted just six, and three of them were for members of the Nichols family. The patriarch was Fitt Nichols who died on 9th May 1835, aged 72. The previous year he buried his daughter Suzanna aged just 14. His son, Robert died the following year aged 36. His wife, Mary lived to 1858 when she died aged 85. So, looking at the plaques we can see that Robert was born when Fitt was 37 and Suzanne when he was 57. His unusual name seems appropriate. Mary was 27 and 47 respectively. There is no record of other children, so there may not have been any. However, there are no records of stillbirths or pregnancies not carried to term. An interesting family.

The chapel is redbrick, with an inside balcony on three sides. There is a baptismal pool at the front. Obviously, this is covered when not in use. There was a small congregation of mostly elderly people. Usually, the singing was quite impressive, helped by the minister’s loud voice. I’m not certain it was always tuneful, but then who am I to talk? It is a sign of my upbringing that I knew the first verses of the hymns, and all of ‘All things bright and beautiful’. The second verse, which we sang as children, is now considered inappropriate for a more equitable (but capitalist) society, and is excluded. It is:

“The rich man in his Castle,
the poor man at his gate;
God made them high or lowly,
and ordered their estate.”

The writer Cecil Frances Alexander (1818 to 1895) was a stalwart defender of the establishment. The rich men in the castles were the English Protestants, the poor men the Irish peasants. This was written about the time of the Irish potato famine that killed a million people and led to the emigration of another million. There is no sense of irony!

Joan’s funeral was a celebration of a long life, and was age appropriate. I can’t say the same for the memorial service for Owen Sharp (19th September 1956 to 6th April 2022) on 14th April. I wondered which of my friends would be the first to die, and how I would feel. Of course, it crossed my mind that it might be me, and I wondered how they would feel. As we go through life these events, always inevitable, come closer. We don’t eye each other up hoping the reaper will turn his or her cold gaze their way first, but we know, like the servant from Baghdad, the appointment cannot be avoided.

That story is “The Appointment in Samarra”. It is an ancient Mesopotamian tale from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a.5-6 retold by W. Somerset Maugham in 1933:

“There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Owen’s passing means I have lost a dear friend. We had a long and deep friendship, one that included me and three boyhood friends. The four of us, in age order, were me, Jon Salisbury, Owen and David Crush. It lasted through lengthy periods with little contact, but always had the certainty of being picked up with ease. We really got to know each other in the fifth and sixth forms. I have written about the school before. Waterford was established as ‘an all-boys, multi-racial Christian school’, that would admit anyone who passed the entrance exam. As it became apparent that many faiths were represented in the student body and parents sought to have their daughters educated, girls were admitted. Thus, the school became a coeducational and multifaith establishment. It educated the children of the anti-apartheid elite (and me).

I was the first. David came soon after. Owen was next to join us, his parents moved to Swaziland in the early 1970s. His father, Sir Edward Sharp, was a baronet having inherited the title from his grandfather, the founder and Chairman of Edward Sharp & Sons. The company were manufacturing confectioners and their best-known product was Sharp’s toffees. The fourth member of the group was Jon Salisbury who came from Botswana for the 6th Form and A levels.

The last year of school, 1974, was wonderful. We were on the cusp of independence, the schooling was, as far as we knew, excellent, and the social life was fun. Senior students were allocated ‘cubicles’, small concrete cells with space for a desk, wardrobe, and bed. Free periods were spent making endless cups of tea and toast, using small, gas fuelled stoves. At the end of the final term (December 1974) we went to the Lourenço Marques Restaurant in Mbabane for a final meal, a post-mortem of the term, and a discussion of where we would be next. We all applied to UK Universities, so immediate destinations were known.

In 2006 three of us, Jon, Owen and I turned 50, having been born in 1956. David, a 1957 baby, lagged by a year. The idea of getting together had been percolating for some time and so we planned to meet in Paris to mark David’s 50th. We had such fun that we decided to repeat it the following year. In 2008 we met in Amsterdam from 31st October to 3rd November. I had a favourite hotel in the centre of the city, the Hotel Wiechmann where we stayed. This was mostly a real treat! We enjoyed the food and the wine/beer at the little café’s and restaurants near the hotel, and walked all over the city being tourists.

At the end of the evening in Paris (2007)

At the end of the evening in Paris (2007)

As David had driven to Amsterdam, we had his car at our disposal. We decided to drive down to Scheveningen on the coast, it is almost a suburb of the Hague. After a continental breakfast at the hotel, we set off. Owen was the only one to help himself to the cold meat buffet provided as part of the continental breakfast. Halfway to our destination he began sweating heavily and shifting uncomfortably. Something he had eaten was reacting badly. He requested an urgent, a very urgent, stop. Fortunately, there was a service station with a toilet, and he disappeared for a while.

Proof that we ere in Paris (2007)

Proof that we were in Paris.

The final time we met as a foursome was Jon’s 60th birthday weekend in May 2016 in Plymouth. He and Katie hired the old fort above the city, a Landmark Trust building. The officers’ quarters are available as bedrooms (in various configurations from two to four to a room), and there is a kitchen, lounge and across the courtyard, an excellent party venue with a bar and dance floor. The walls of the fort have magnificent cannons at intervals. People who hire the place have it completely to themselves, and once the huge wooden main gate is locked and barred, must stay. David remarked if we worked backwards, we left school in 1974, 42 years previously. If we went 42 years back from 1974, it would have been 1932. An interesting perspective on time!

At the Fort in Plymouth (2016)

At the Fort in Plymouth (2016)

My comment on my blog – which seems very puissant now was:

“It is a source of some sadness to me that I did not organise events with my Swaziland friends and family to mark my major birthdays. I guess if I make it to 70 then I should start making plans as soon as possible. There is no doubt though these birthdays marked a real time of transition for us. Two of the four have retired and one is about to. I, on the other hand, will probably keep working for another five or so years. It will be interesting to see how we change and indeed if we do. I feel that after being at school together and sharing formative years we have not changed… but who knows.”

It was, I think, Owen’s last overseas trip.

The outstanding, and final, road trip was with Owen and David. Owen organised a tour of the KwaZulu-Natal battlefields for David and me. It was amazing. We stayed at Owen’s home on Friday, 24 November 2017 and set off in his vehicle the following day. Our first stop was the ‘Mandela capture site’, where Nelson Mandela was apprehended in 1963. The memorial is a remarkable sculpture of iron cut-outs giving a profile of Mandela’s face. It was a good way to start, being reminded how miraculous it was that South Africa had a peaceful transition from apartheid.

The next stop was Spion Kop, the site of a Boer war battle in January 1900, a fight over a strategic hill on the route to the besieged town of Ladysmith. It was a sobering sight, lines of whitewashed stones marking where the British soldiers had died and been buried. We stayed in the delightful Accacia Cottage at the Spionkop Lodge and the following day moved on to one of the defining battles of South African history. The Battle of Blood River was fought on 16 December 1838. The Boer trekkers were attacked by overwhelming numbers of Zulu warriors. They circled their ox wagons into a laager and held off the impi’s. This is very significant for the Afrikaans population of South Africa as it was seen as confirmation of God’s blessing on their ventures. The water of the river turned red with the blood of the combatants, hence its name. It was marked by a holiday, the Day of the Vow during the apartheid era, renamed as the Day of Reconciliation after the transition to democracy. The site with its circle of concrete wagons is in the middle of an area of empty veld.

Mandela Memorial Capture Site

Mandela Memorial Capture Site

Burial Trench, British Soldiers on Spion Kop

Burial Trench, British Soldiers on Spion Kop

We then switched to the Anglo Zulu conflict with a visit to Rorke’s drift. This was a hospital and supply depot for a British invasion force fighting against the Zulus. On 26 January 1879 a large force of British soldiers was overwhelmed by the Zulus at Isandlwana. It is estimated over 1,300 were killed, only two escaped and they were subsequently killed as they fled towards Rorke’s drift. Again, it was an eerie sight, an isolated hill in remote Zululand dotted with white cairns showing where soldiers had fought and died. There were some defensive positions on the steep slopes of the hill, one can only imagine how the soldiers must have felt as they watched the army below them being overwhelmed and slaughtered knowing they were next.

The Battle of Rorke’s drift lasted through the night of 22 January 1879. A garrison of about 155 men, held off thousands of Zulus. Eleven Victoria Cross medals were awarded to the defenders. The battle was immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu starring Michael Caine. The site, as indeed all the sites we visited, has been well maintained and gives a real sense of the dramatic events. We stayed in a cottage at the Fugitives Drift Lodge.

This trip brought the bloody history of the province to life. The battles between the Boers and the British; the British and the Zulus; and the Zulus and the Boers are well documented and memorialised. It is a pity we do not seem to learn from them. It was a fantastic tour and Owen’s meticulous planning made it run smoothly. He recorded we travelled 1,005 km, spent 14 hours on the road, and about 18 hours at the various sites. In addition to this, much wine was drunk and excellent food eaten. It is something I will remember with gratitude for a very long time.

Wagons at Blood River

Wagons at Blood River

Isandlwana with white cairns visible

Isandlwana with white cairns visible

Rorke's Drift

Rorke’s Drift

On the battlefield: Isandlwana

On the battlefield: Isandlwana

This is a longer blog than usual. It has been a time of sadness and contemplation. I miss being able to talk to or write to Owen. I miss his endless WhatsApp’s, all of which he thought were either funny or thought provoking. At his memorial the eulogies talked about his meticulous planning and unwillingness to deviate. The term OCD was used. This was not the boy and man I knew.

We can’t know when we will get to our metaphorical Samarras. It is clear that it comes ever closer. What is more important is what we do with the time. Owen was first diagnosed with cancer in 2016 but was determined to live a full life. He provided an example of someone who did this. I feel privileged to have called him a friend. It is hard to realise that over 50 years of friendship have ended. I am going to contemplate this and what it means to me.

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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Autumn and Spring Showers

The month of April began in the Cape and ended in Canada via Norwich. In the first week we ran the scientific writing course in Stellenbosch in the Cape. There were 19 participants from across Africa. Tim Quinlan did most of the teaching and the event was excellent. We are beginning to see results in submitted and published manuscripts from earlier years. I hope the project will be renewed, but if it is not then we have achieved a great deal. As my travel was from the southern to the northern hemisphere, I experienced autumn one day and spring the next. In England the daffodils have bloomed and are past their best. In Canada, or at least in this part, they have yet to blossom and it is still decidedly chilly.

Of course visiting Cape Town is also a chance to see family. My brother and sister-in-law were away but I caught up with my aunt, various cousins and a niece for Sunday lunch. I felt that I had not talked properly to niece Sarah, and she was good enough to join me for lunch on the Monday before I flew back to the UK. We walked across from the City Lodge to a new restaurant right next door. It was good to have a decent conversation and catch up with family news. Because the flight from Cape Town is so late (after 11 pm), I only watched one film: The Great Buster, a biopic of filmmaker and comedian Buster Keaton. He was one of the few stars who transitioned successfully from silent films to sound. It was not demanding so was good to watch in the small hours.

I had a relatively short spell in England. My sister came up from London for Easter and her birthday. We went to a show at the Norwich Playhouse, where Rowan works. It was an amateur production of A Sound of Music. It was outstanding. There were a few wrong notes, but not many at all. The set was imaginative and the acting most impressive. I think amateur productions can be excellent because people really throw their hearts into the show.

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Surgery and Sunshine

I was offline for a few days in March, an interesting experience especially during the time of crisis in the UK. It was my birthday on the 18th and I celebrated by returning to South Africa on the 16th for a series of elective medical procedures. I took the 06h15 KLM flight from Norwich to Amsterdam where I connected on the 10h15 flight to Johannesburg. The journey takes nearly 11 hours. My case was one of the first to be unloaded and appear on the carousel, these little things matter.

There are no connecting flights to Durban that late. My standard operating procedure is to stay in a hotel at the airport and connect the next day. Normally the travel agent’s opening proposal for the connection is a plane at an absurdly early hour, 07h00 for example. On this trip I was sensible and got a flight a little after 13h00. It allowed me ample time to sort myself out, and have a leisurely breakfast.

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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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