Lovely Lisbon and Demonstrating in Norwich

I went to my first conference in nearly two years last month. It was fantastic for many reasons: a chance to get out of the UK; visit a new country and city; meet with colleagues; catch up with developments in the field; and above all be reminded of what we had lost. My word I enjoyed myself. The primary purpose of the trip was to attend the International Association of Providers in AIDS Care’s (IAPAC) Fast-Track Cities 2021 Conference.

To their credit the conference organizers included Covid-19 in the programme. My presentation, which I shared with Corey Prachniak-Rincon, an IAPAC staffer, was on ‘Exploring Legal, Public Policy, and Finance Dimensions of Health Responses.’ The take-home messages were not encouraging, until Covid is on the decline, HIV will not be a priority, even though it (HIV) is not going away. The number of HIV infections continues to rise.

Getting to and from Lisbon was not a joyful experience. There are still virtually no flights from Norwich airport, so I had to take the train to Stansted and fly on Ryanair, a cost cutting, budget airline. Getting to Stansted was not problematic, there is a train from Norwich to the airport that takes just over an hour and a half. The check-in was straight forward, the flight packed and boring. I got into Lisbon at about 19h00 and went straight to the hotel.

Lisbon was so interesting I decided to spend a couple of extra days there. Changing the ticket was not difficult, but I ran into an unexpected problem before flying. I tried and tried to check in online and failed miserably. When I got to the airport, very early, I went to the Ryanair desk to find out what had gone wrong. I was then told I could never have checked in online. I don’t entirely understand why, but I spent two hours more than needed at the airport. Unfortunately Ryanair operates out of Lisbon’s Terminal Two which is threadbare and crowded.

The documentation required to travel included passenger locator forms for both Portuguese and British authorities, Covid vaccination documents and the results of the Covid test. I also took out insurance, with my local travel agent, in case anything went wrong. To the best of my knowledge the only document physically checked was the UK passenger locator form, and that was by the Ryanair staff in Lisbon. I suspect information is shared electronically by all who are interested. I find having to collect and collate all these forms to be extremely stressful. It is also expensive, a disincentive for travel. This is a good thing for the environment but is discriminatory against poorer people. As well as documentation we had to wear face masks from the time of entering to exiting the airports.

Unfortunately, arriving back at Stansted, I discovered that there were no direct trains to Norwich at that time of the evening. I was advised to go from the airport towards London, Bishops Stortford station. From there I got a train to Cambridge, changed to go to Stowmarket, and changed again for the Norwich train. The total journey time was about three hours, so it was not too bad. All the journeys were with Greater Anglia and time, in new and comfortable rolling stock so no complaints.

Lisbon from the castle (October 2021)

Lisbon from the castle (October 2021)

An example of a mosaic from the Mosaic Museum, Lisbon, Portugal

An example of a mosaic from the Mosaic Museum, Lisbon, Portugal (October 2021)

The Castle Ramparts, Lisbon, Portugal (October 2021)

The Castle Ramparts, Lisbon, Portugal (October 2021)

Lisbon is a delightful city. The conference was from Wednesday to Friday, so Saturday and Sunday were spent wandering around. Saturday was spent walking round the old part of the city. On Sunday I did more touristy things, visiting a ceramics museum and the castle at the centre of the city. The castle comprises imposing walls enclosing, probably, two or three acres. It is possible to climb up and walk around on the ramparts. The ascent is rewarded by some amazing views. It was my intention to visit the cathedral. I asked various people for directions and ended up at an imposing cathedral-like building. I walked all the way round looking for a way in, but to no avail. Then I spotted the notice at the door giving the opening times. It is not, wait for it, open on a Sunday, so my guess is it was not the cathedral. Unusually I have included some photographs with this post.

The hotel, in a modern area to the north of the city, was comfortable and had a wonderful roof-top bar, on the 16th floor, that gave a view across the city and out to sea. They had a small menu that included Prego’s, a steak sandwich. This was one of the staples of eating out in Swaziland (Eswatini) in my youth. That was what I had more than once in the five nights there. It was delicious, as well as being something of a blast from the past.

The conference speakers were taken to the ‘Clube de Jornalistas’ for dinner. The building and gardens were magnificent, wonderful high ceiled rooms with wood panelling and sweeping staircases. According to their website

‘You don’t need to be a member of Lisbon’s ‘Clube de Jornalistas’ (‘the Press Club’) to visit this restaurant, and it’s really worth it!’

I concur, I was at a table with a group of, mainly IAPAC, staff and we had a delightful evening of wide-ranging conversations.

It was so nice to be at a conference with colleagues. While I am glad we are going to change the way we do things, in person meetings cannot be totally replaced, and nor should they. This was an attempt at a blended model with online attendance and people able to look at sessions at their convenience. The curse of this will be the requirement to have passwords.

Back in Norwich this has been a period of attending events. Rowan and I are great fans of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and have seen it a few times. A touring production came to our theatre, and we bought tickets. It turned out Rowan’s partner’s dad is also a huge fan and so his parents joined us. We agreed to meet for a pre-performance meal. While sitting in the restaurant Rowan’s phone rang, she glanced at it, saw it was a friend in Durban and declined the call. A few moments later it buzzed with an incoming message. This was to tell her that Durbanite, Jessica Sole was in Norwich to perform in the, yes, the Rocky Horror Show. The Sole family were part of our circle in Durban and Rowan was friends with the two children, one of whom was Jessica. What a small world it is.

Douglas enjoys, and is knowledgeable about, the James Bond franchise and so at the weekend we went to see No Time to Die. The previous evening, we had watched the previous Bond film, Spectre, at home in order, I think, to follow the story. This was pure escapism, and both were highly entertaining. As an aside the cinema we went to charges only £4.99 per ticket for everyone. The act of simply going to a cinema was liberating. The show was popular, but few people wore masks.

Photo of the Gaia at St. Peter Mancroft

The Gaia at St. Peter Mancroft, 30 October 2021

Prior to the film Ailsa and I went into Norwich to join the Climate march, part of a Global Day of Climate Crisis action. It began at the city hall with about 45 minutes of speeches and then the 500+ protesters, and us, marched (straggled would be a better word), though the city streets. It was good to be part of this and see so many people engaged. Unfortunately, I think the majority were older, and while we need to take responsibility for the crisis we are not going to be around to fix it. The previous week we had looked at an amazing representation of the world in St Peter Mancroft, the second largest church in Norwich. I include a picture of this, and one of the marchers at city hall.

Photo of Speakers at the Climate Protest in Norwich in November 2021

Outside City Hall, looking towards the Speakers at the Climate Protest in Norwich (6 November 2021)

There were numerous banners and placards held up by the marchers. They included some for the Socialist Workers’ Party. This evolved from the International Socialists and was formerly established in 1977, my second year at university. I well remember the debates in the Student Union and the battles with other left-wing groups, such as the communists. They never had a significant impact, but it was interesting to see they have survived; indeed, the hard-core supporters still sell the newspaper on Gentleman’s Walk every Saturday. I wonder if this will have any impact, certainly the UK’s Conservative Government seems morally bankrupt and despite COP26 the hopes for real change here seem remote. Unbelievably there are plans for a new coal mine to be opened in the north of the country.

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.

That is a gloomy way to start this blog, however these milestones lead to introspection. I have been incredibly lucky in terms of my career. My first serious job was as an Overseas Development Institute Fellow posted to the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning in Gaborone, Botswana for two and a half years from 1980 to 1983. I was recruited to the Economic Research Unit, at the then University of Natal, in Durban in 1983, and retired at the end of 2013. During that time apartheid ended, Nelson Mandela was elected president, the university became the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and I established the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division. In January 2014 I joined the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo Ontario, appointed by Wilfred Laurier University as the CIGI Chair in Global Health Policy, and this is the post I retire from.

The next few months are reasonably busy. I have been invited to talk at a conference in Lisbon. That will be interesting and fun. Most of my career was spent working on socio-economic causes and consequences of HIV and AIDS. I have been trying to apply these lessons to Covid-19, mainly through writing, but also some analysis. It is writing I enjoy most, at least when I am not procrastinating. I do also enjoy giving presentations. A colleague in Waterloo is organising a series of meetings on the theme ‘After the Pandemic’ through The International Centre for Economic Analysis (ICEA) a non-profit, non-partisan organization for advancement of research in economics and other social sciences. It is an international centre with chapters at Wilfrid Laurier University; the University of Warsaw and the University of Sienna. I am also speaking at the Public Health Conference scheduled from December 3-4, 2021.

There have been several fascinating books on Covid published recently. I wrote an editorial/book review for The African Journal of AIDS Research. The books were Richard Horton’s 2020 book, ‘The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s gone wrong and how to stop it happening again’;1 Daniel Halperin’s ‘Facing COVID Without Panic: 12 Common Myths and 12 Lesser Known Facts about the Pandemic: Clearly Explained by an Epidemiologist’.2 Michael Lewis’s 2021 book, ‘The Premonition: A Pandemic Story’,3 Jeremy Farrar’s 2021 ‘Spike: The Virus versus the People. The Inside Story’.4 The story of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, ‘Vaxxers’,5 and Adam Tooze’s ‘Shutdown: How COVID-19 Shook the World’s Economy’.6

Over the same period, I read two 2021 books on Trump’s final year in office, both by Washington Post reporters: ‘I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year’7 and ‘Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History’8 by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta. What we watched, horrified, and dismayed, is captured and analysed in detail in these pages. The key question is: will Trump be a candidate again in 2024?

I am not just reading; I am also writing. I have been collaborating on a series of Covid-19 and HIV and AIDS articles for the Global Fund Observer. I am writing a couple of other longer articles. It is pleasantly busy, and who knows, perhaps they will have some impact. The memoir I started months ago has been on the backburner. However, I am not the only family member writing.

My cousin Caroline Rodgers, who lives in Cape Town, took part in a University of Cape Town summer school on South African involvement in the 1914 – 1918 Great War. A book resulted. ‘One Hundred Years On Personal Stories of the Great War’ compiled by Kathleen Satchwell and Josephine Frater, it is self-published, the ISBN is 978-0-620-77931-9. Carolyn’s contribution covers her grandfathers’ war experience. The grandfather we share was Fred Hodgson. I never knew him as he died in 1952, 4 years before I was born. He was born in 1890 in Sunderland in England. His family emigrated to Kimberley in 1891, where he grew up. He enlisted at the outbreak of the war and was sent to France. He was commissioned, as an officer, in 1917. He was awarded a Military Cross in 1918 and a few months later received a bar to the MC (for readers unacquainted with military matters: if a medal is given, and the authorities want to award a second a bar is attached to the medal).

I re-joined the gym up the road a couple of months ago. On a conference call, a week or so ago, a colleague said there were three possible outcomes from the lock-down: hunk, chunk or drunk. Walking is something I have been rather good about, managing the magic 10,000 steps almost every day, and quite often getting up to 15,000. Cycling is mostly going to town, to the market, and collecting books from my favourite shop Bookbugs and Dragon Tales. The people who own it are happy to drop books off to our home.

The big events we’re going to live theatre and to London. There was a production of Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Norwich Theatre Royal. There were not many performances. On the first evening there were lots of empty seats. Douglas was going anyway, so Rowan and I decided to buy tickets at the box office. The story is of three children bombed out of London (their parents are killed). Their host is a trainee witch. It was delightful, but one of the real pleasures was the special effects, a flying bed and an undersea scene, quite remarkable.

Ailsa and I went to London on Saturday 9th October. We met my brother, his family and my sister for lunch. The journey involved two trains with a change at Ely. We had not met for several years, thanks to Covid. Derek and Lynn live in Hout Bay in the Cape, their kids are in London and Manchester, Gill is in London. They had not made it to the UK for more than two years and, given her parents are in their eighties, they were keen to come over, even though it included 10 days in a quarantine hotel near Heathrow. It was good to get together. And that is it for this month.


  1. Richard Horton, ‘The COVID-19-19 Catastrophe: What’s gone wrong and how to stop it happening again’, Polity Press, Cambridge 2020.
  2. Daniel T Halperin, ‘Facing COVID Without Panic: 12 Common Myths and 12 Lesser Known Facts about the Pandemic: Clearly Explained by and Epidemiologist’, ISBN9798663024747 https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08D25GQX6
    Adam Tooze, ‘Shutdown: How COVID-19 Shook the World’s Economy’, Alan Lane, London, 2021
  3. Michael Lewis, ‘The Premonition: A Pandemic Story’, Allen Lane. London, 2021 301 pages
  4. Jeremy Farrar and Anjana Ahuja, ‘Spike: The Virus versus the People’, Profile Books, London, July 2021
  5. Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, ‘Vaxxers: The Inside Story of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine the Race Against the Virus’. Hodder and Stoughton, London 2021
  6. Adam Tooze, ‘Shutdown: How COVID-19 Shook the World’s Economy’, Alan Lane, London, 2021
  7. Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, ‘I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year’, Penguin Press, New York, 2021
  8. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta ‘Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration’s Response to the Pandemic That Changed History’, Harper Collins, London, 2021

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.

The original surgeon gave me options for the repair. I selected stitching rather than putting in a mesh. This was a mistake, as I realised, when the bulge reappeared some months later. This time I did more homework and consulted with medical professionals in Waterloo, Norwich, and Durban (as well as qualified friends). The consensus was it had to be redone, but with a mesh. In addition, I learnt I would have to wait at least a year before a surgeon would even consider reopening the wound.

Covid-19 meant that, after arriving in Norwich in December 2019, I have not travelled outside the UK or even on a plane for 14 months. (I am seriously tempted to go for a flying lesson as soon as it is permitted just to get in the air!) This in turn necessitated arranging to have the surgery in Norfolk. I began the process and expected to have to wait for at least a year. As it happens it was quicker than that, but my word it became a complicated process, and it has been an insight into the amazing NHS and how they function in time of crisis.

The centre for these surgeries in Norfolk is the James Paget Hospital. This is in Gorleston on the Norfolk coast, about 50 minutes (or 30 miles) away. The process involved visits for assessments, an MRI scan, a Covid test and other ancillary events. The surgery was originally scheduled for January 2021. However, the government unwisely relaxed restrictions in England at Christmas, and the number of cases soared. On 8th January 2021, they peaked at 68,192 up from just 12,386 on 12th December 2020. The hospital called me to say, regrettably, the surgery would be postponed. I expected this!

I was quite happy to wait, after all it was elective, and not urgent. The next, and unexpected development was the hospital called and offered me a date, at a private hospital in Colchester, some 60 miles away. One of the ways the NHS is trying to manage their waiting list is to outsource some procedures to the private sector. I declined the option and eventually heard from the local surgeon who said that the surgery could be scheduled for 2nd March. As an aside the number of new Covid-19 cases across the UK on that day was 6,411.

On the day, I had to get to the hospital by 7 am. Ailsa drove me down and dropped me off. I checked in to the day procedure ward and was wheeled into the theatre at 11 am. I had hoped it would be earlier. This delay was entirely my fault. When we got up, just before 5 am, I had a cup of tea with milk in it. Note to self: read the instructions carefully and follow them! I could have had water or black tea; it was the milk that was the issue!

Apart from extra hygiene precautions and wearing masks, the part of the hospital I was in appeared to be functioning normally. There is a separate terribly busy Covid section. The biggest obvious difference is visitors are not allowed at all. This makes for a very much quieter environment. The day procedure centre was active, but not manic and the nursing staff were caring, professional and calm. Everything went smoothly and, after passing urine, (a non-negotiable apparently) I was discharged in the evening. I left with a ‘goody bag’ of everything I needed for post-operative self-care.

My ‘N’ for hernia operations is now 2. The first was an incision while this second was done laparoscopically, through five places on my stomach. I had to take a few painkillers, far fewer than prescribed. Generally, I have been fine although getting up and lying down have been challenging. In addition, I was given about 10 preloaded syringes with blood thinning medication, to inject into my stomach. Not a pleasant process. I have been really impressed by the standard of service in the NHS despite the Covid-19 crisis. This also needs to be seen against the backdrop of a public sector pay freeze except for nurses, who have been offered a derisory 1%. They are furious, feeling it as a slap in the face, and I quite understand. I recognize the need for fiscal conservatism to pay for the Covid-19 response. It has cost billions, not just care costs, but also keeping families and supporting the furlough programme so people have jobs to return to. This stingy pay offer to core staff stinks.

I have taken several lessons from this experience. The first is to read and follow instructions carefully. Second is that the health service is amazing. Even when it is under immense pressure, people are seen and treated. At the same time as this was going on, the government is rolling out a vaccination campaign. I was able to go online and book both the appointments I need, the first on 12th March and the second three months later. My hub is the Food Court, in the currently shuttered, Castle Mall Shopping Centre in Norwich.

I do have a few quibbles though. The main one is about ‘joined-up’ thinking. The provision of a decent health system is part of the social contract, but the major challenge faced by humankind is climate change. I have been taken aback by the use of resources in the health service, much of which probably can’t be recycled. I was given 14 disposable syringes, each in separate plastic wrapping. It may be that there are no options! However the instructions and pamphlets were on recycled paper.

I have talked before about how fortunate I feel we are. We have a home, an income, and a family close at hand. The children are coping with this as well as anyone. My extended family are all OK, although no one is very happy. In addition to that, our environment is changing in two significant ways. First with regard to Covid-19, the numbers are falling, and the vaccination programme is working very well. Second, there are signs of spring. I can see the first leaves beginning to bud on the rose bushes and today we spotted blossom on the trees in the neighbour’s garden. It is still chilly but there are signs of spring.

This good fortune was brought home to me when we walked to a local shop to get some essentials and the Observer newspaper. The rule is only one person from a household should go in and so I waited outside. There is a ‘security guard’ at the entrance to make sure people wear masks and sanitise their hands. I think he is from Norwich. I started chatting with him and this is his story: he worked on cruise ships out of Fort Lauderdale in Florida and was also paid as an American Football Player. I know this may come as a shock to readers of this blog, but there is a league in the UK and Norwich has a team which he was part of before going off adventuring. He said he played in Australia, before going on to join a team in Vladivostok in Eastern Russia. Covid put an end to this, and I think he was lucky to get back to Norwich. I would never have known any of this. What a story. The next instalment will be interesting, and I am looking forward to it. End of personal stuff, some COVID-19 coverage next.

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Covid-19 Watch: Green Shoots!

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

There had been no rain in Norwich for six weeks and the garden was looking decidedly wilted. Finally, on Sunday night, the heavens opened, and to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, sheets of rain fell. The lawn had been brown and within 24 hours was transformed into a green swath. The rain butts filled within a few days as showers continued to march across East Anglia. It was a reminder that nature is beyond our control, and Covid-19 is a reminder that it can turn on us. Zoonotic events like the one that gave us SARS-Cov-2 are becoming more frequent. We must both prevent them through better stewardship, and be prepared for them. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting analysis: ‘A deadly coronavirus was inevitable. Why was no one ready?’ the subheading: ‘Scientists warned of a pandemic for decades, yet when Covid-19 arrived, the world had few resources and little understanding’. The authors conclude withdrawal of support to the Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control meant early warnings mechanisms were lost.1

In general, the epidemic is beginning to become more predictable and there are a growing number of countries where daily cases have peaked and are now falling. This includes South Africa, the subject of this week’s guest contribution, where the number of new cases peaked towards the end of July. Across much of Europe the daily number of new cases was declining but some countries, notably Spain, France and the Netherlands have, over the past week, reported increases. Boris Johnson’s government has imposed quarantines on people arriving from certain countries, the footnote sets out the complex governance in the UK.2 Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different rules and regulations regarding gathering and could, but don’t yet, have different quarantines.

In this blog I wanted to make some predictions about the future. It is time to think about where we are going and how long this may take. I am aware that this is inadvisable, after all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes said: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”.3 In addition, I am aware that this week’s offering is becoming too long, so I will hold that over for a week.
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Covid-19 Watch: Reflection and consolidation

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

It has been five months since the first blog was posted in early March, ‘Covid 19 (the SARS-C0V-2) and you’. Since then it has become a weekly event, often bolstered, and supported with the help of friends writing guest columns. The pandemic has exceeded my worst fears; numbers are increasing almost exponentially. On 4th March there were a mere 93,000 cases, mostly in China. Today there are close to 19,000,000 and the largest number is in the US. I watched the pandemic and the responses particularly closely in the UK and South Africa. In one, the reaction has been confused and inconsistent, and in the other ineffectual. See below!

The first post was meant to be a quick ‘fact sheet’: what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know. How did we get to this parlous situation five months later? This is my blog, so I will touch on what Covid-19 has meant for me. As I am on sabbatical this year, I am not in Waterloo Ontario, but in Norwich with my family. We have a pleasant garden and so I have not felt confined, however, this would not have been the case in Waterloo.

Our lockdown in the UK began on 19th March. We were told to stay at home, except for essential trips, and for one hour of exercise per day. We took the exercise instruction seriously, but being rebellious, I spent between up to two hours walking or cycling. The pandemic means I am considerably fitter! Unfortunately, increased alcohol consumption means I am not any thinner!

Cycling is something I have not done for decades. Once I had the bikes unearthed and serviced, I re-discovered how much fun it is. The ride to Norwich market, at a sedate pace, takes 40 minutes. On Monday I cycled to The Eagle, a ‘gastropub’, which means a good menu and excellent food for lunch with a friend from University (45 years ago).

The Eagle was named originally for Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, who represented Great Britain in the 1988 Olympic ski jumping, the first Briton since 1928. He got into the team through amazing persistence and finished last in both events he entered. There is a 2016 film called, unsurprisingly, Eddie the Eagle. He ranks alongside Eric Moussambani Malonga, (Eric the Eel) the 2000 Olympics Equatorial Guinean ‘swimmer’, who won his heat as other competitors were disqualified and holds the record for the slowest ever Olympic 100 metres freestyle.1

Norwich is well known for pubs and churches. It used to be said that there was a pub for every day of the year and a church for every Sunday. Cycling home, I passed one church that never ceases to amuse me. The Zoar Baptist Chapel, built in 1886, advertises itself as “Zoar Strict and Particular Baptist Chapel St Mary’s Place”. It would be worth going to a service just to experience it.

Part of the reason for going out for my lunch was because it was the first day of the ‘meal deals’ announced by the British Chancellor. In August, from Mondays to Wednesdays, half the cost of a meal, up to the value of £10 per customer, will be paid by the government. Sensibly alcohol is excluded from the offer. This is one of the ways Chancellor Sunak hopes to get the economy moving. It begins as the generous furlough scheme ends. There are still furlough options, but employers have to contribute to the costs now. The next few months and years will be exceedingly difficult for many.
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Family and Travel

March should mark the end of winter in England. There are clear signs that spring is approaching. Some of the trees are covered with blossom. The daffodils in our garden are almost all in full bloom. However, despite the signs that nature is stirring, the weather has been rotten. We experienced periods of sustained strong winds and rain for nearly two weeks at the end of February. The western part of the country has had flood after flood, houses and homes have been wrecked. I find it quite confusing to see car roofs protruding from the middle of floods, surely you can drive a car out of harm’s way.

Of course, the serious floods over the past fifteen or so years meant defenses have been built, and in many cases they have worked. It could have been so much worse. The problem is that there are just too many houses built in vulnerable places (unbelievably on floodplains), and the nature of these storms is that they are ever more intense, a month’s rain in 24 hours. Yes, global warming is real, and it is affecting us in the UK in clear and measurable ways.

I had been organising a lunch in London with our extended family in mid-February. It turned out to be the wildest and windiest weekend of the month and public transport was greatly disrupted. As my sister and her husband are not youthful, canceling the gathering seemed appropriate, and indeed this turned out to be prescient. Fortunately, we made the call to postpone before I finalised the restaurant booking.

My brother, Derek, was passing through London for a day on his way back from the United States to Cape Town, and so we decided to have a smaller lunch the following weekend, on Saturday, 22 February. The plan was for Douglas and I to take the train down to London and meet up with the family at a restaurant they had booked near Notting Hill Gate. This was a central location and gave easy access to and from Heathrow for Derek as he had a limited amount of time.

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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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New Decade! New Life?

The 1st January 2020 marks the start of a new decade as well as a New Year. I am aware that some purists (or pedants) think that the decade does not actually officially start until 1st January 2021, I am not part of that group. This is it! A new decade!

The next year will be interesting, I need to adapt my lifestyle. The first order of business will be getting used to living full time in Norwich. At the moment I have absolutely no travel planned for the next calendar year. As I am on sabbatical I don’t have to think about teaching but I am ‘on the books’ to the end of 2021. What should I do? This will become clearer in the next few months.

I returned to the UK on the 23rd December, just ahead of Christmas. My last few weeks in Waterloo were crammed with wrapping up the term and students and seeing and saying goodbye to friends. I also had to pack up the apartment for rental. Fortunately, I had help. The estate agent who is handling it for me, Dave McIntyre, is hopeful it can be let furnished. This means crockery, cutlery, furniture, linen and books were left out, but could be packed away if necessary. Dave is the chap who sold me the place originally and who will take care of the sale in due course. He is not just an estate agent but a decent and trustworthy person.

I did not write about this in my last post (not enough room), but at the end of November I went, with my friend Dana, to the event Dining with the Dead! This was held at the Kitchener Museum which had a themed exhibition on the afterlife. The way it was advertised was as a

“one of a kind dining experience! To coincide with the Exhibition at THEMUSEUM, we’re hosting Psychic Medium Kerrilynn Shellhorn (who) will utilize her strong connection to the other side to bring messages from lost loved ones while you dine on a delicious 3 course dinner.”

The food was excellent and the service great. The séance was, well, medium. There were about 35 diners. Only a few were given messages from the departed. I was not convinced but will chalk it up as an interesting experience.

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The Misty Murky Mornings

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.

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