Saturdays Starting 2 July 2011 (An Attempt at Writing Around a Day)

Saturdays Starting 2 July 2011 (An Attempt at Writing Around a Day)

I was asked a week or so ago if I still wrote and posted items on my website. This provided the incentive for a new posting, so here it is. The finest description of a squash game I have ever read is in Saturday by Ian McEwen. The whole book is about the events of just one day. It is generally brilliant, but the squash game stands out. As I sat and thought about this letter/blog the book came to mind. My experiment is to centre it on Saturdays. I begin with 2nd July, the day I left Montreux.

The big event in the city was the 45th Jazz Festival, but that, sadly, is not why I was there. I was attending a consultative meeting, organised by the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, to look at their new strategy. While interesting, and a chance to catch up with many old friends it was not as entertaining as the jazz. The town was crowded with people having a great time: old Americans of all colours who looked as though they had played with Louis Armstrong; young French men and women both wearing the minimum clothing; and everyone in between.

I was unusually sensible when checking into the hotel. On one side of the building was a stage where some of the music events were going to be held. Having made a mental note of this, I said to the check-in clerk: “Please can you put me on the street side – I would rather have sirens, trams and traffic, than music until the small hours.”
He did, and the traffic was not too bad. Judging by the bleary eyed expressions of a number of the other delegates, this was a good decision!

I travelled from Durban, leaving behind a city engulfed in (for Durban) cold weather. It was so cold that it marked two firsts. It was the first time I have ever had a heater in my office! I borrowed one of the electric bar heaters and had it on full power. The disadvantage of being on the top floor of a, not very well built, building is the wind finds its way insidiously through all the ill fitting doors and windows. It was not pleasant. The second new event was I had my flat air-conditioning unit turned onto the heat mode, I not even know if it would work. One evening, after putting on all clothing possible, I tried it and it blew out warm air! I left my flat wearing four layers: vest, shirt, jersey and jacket, and still felt cold, so at the airport I bought a tee-shirt. In Johannesburg it was – 2° C, the chill seemed to grasp at our legs on the air bridge. What a contrast with a very warm Europe.

The flight over to Amsterdam was uneventful I watched a film, drank wine and slept. I just had time for a shower, and then caught the flight to Geneva and the train to Montreux. Rather good that the train was at the platform and pulled away two minutes after I boarded it. Swiss efficiency I thought! This was spoiled on the journey back to Geneva after the meeting. The train was barrelling though the valley at a good pace when suddenly the brakes came on and we came to a halt in a most dramatic, albeit controlled manner. The smell of burnt brake pads wafted down the carriage; there was a stunned silence; and no platform was visible on either side of the train. I looked out of the window and saw a number of passengers gingerly climbing down to the path beside the track.
When the conductors came through I asked, “What happened? Was that an unscheduled stop?”
“The driver forgot he was supposed to stop at that station”, they said, clearly rather embarrassed.

I thought I might have a headache on Saturday. On the Friday night there were only three delegates left in the hotel: myself, Thomas an epidemiologist from Tulane University in New Orleans, and John from The Futures Institute in Hartford Connecticut. We decided to go out together for supper. As it happened John had a stinking cold, came down to tell us he was feeling grim and then crawled back up to bed. I did not know Thomas so it was a bit of a ‘blind date’. We walked to the kiosks that lined the edge of the lake to cater for the music lovers; bought food and went up the seating area to sit and order wine – which came in minute plastic glasses. We started with the reasonable wine but moved swiftly to the cheapest! The conversation was about malaria and being academics in the US, UK and South Africa. The economic crisis is being felt nearly everywhere and demands are increasing: publish; get research grants; and have a profile. The wine was not too bad and I had no headache the next morning which surprised me.

I had always believed that aircraft are at their emptiest on Saturdays. I was wrong, the airport in Geneva was heaving. Checking in and getting through security took well over an hour. But on the plus side I was given an ‘involuntary’ upgrade to business class! This had happened on the way out as well, so it was quite a score! This was not the only good thing to happen as part of my travelling. A week later at Heathrow on my way to Rome via Amsterdam, the check-in staff told me to go to the ticket desk because there were weather problems in Holland. I was given a seat on a direct flight to Rome on Alitalia. I got in three hours earlier than expected!

Part of the writing for this blog was done in the very back row of the Alitalia plane. It is worth sitting at the back in economy, it is not very popular and there are generally empty seats. The wine served in this part of the plane is headache in a bottle though. Alitalia is a Pepsi airline – which means that the drink they offer is Pepsi or diet Pepsi. How does this marketing and branding work, who makes these decisions and how? This was offered with either a pathetic little packet of almond biscuits or sort of breadsticks! No proper food even though the flight was from 4.30 to The issue of space on planes is interesting. One can’t mind sitting next to other people. The intimacy is something one has to grin and bear. However on one recent flight I found myself sitting in economy next to a chap, who, like me was wearing a short sleeved shirt. The light touch, and even mingling of arm hairs, with a stranger is a familiarity too far!

On getting home from Switzerland on Saturday evening we had a family meal. Rowan came over and we went out to the local Indian take-away to get supper for everyone. I had two evenings in London and ended up at Italian restaurants near Victoria station on both occasions. The first was not a great success as the ‘vegetarian’ pizza arrived with ham on it! The second meal was with Department for International Developmentcolleagues which was fun. We had spent the day in an airless, windowless, bunker in the bowels of the Ministry building doing the work planning.

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The Saturday in Rome was busy. The reason for being there was to attend the Executive Committee and Governing Council meeting of the International AIDS Society. We meet twice a year – at a conference and then in retreat for a few days. The purpose is to provide direction for the organisation and deal with any issues. One quite interesting discussion has been about the size of the Council, at the moment 25 people elected from five regions of the world. The decision will probably be to reduce the number to 20, which will make it more manageable and cheaper. This has to go into the bye-laws and be approved by the members, which will take time. It was good to see a level of fiscal conservativism among my colleagues. Perhaps three years of my presenting treasurer’s reports and stressing the need for economy has borne fruit.

Rowan, her man Ben, and Douglas spent a Saturday at a festival. They were there for three nights camping, with the rain and mud; music and fun; lack of toilets and showers. The result I would imagine is spending time being cold, tired, wet, dirty, smelly, bad tempered and possibly constipated as the communal toilets are very basic. They had a great time. Then on Tuesday 19th July – a break from the Saturday theme – we went to the University of East Anglia and attended the graduation ceremony where Rowan got her BA (Hons) degree. It was such a good day and we felt so proud watching her go up on the stage, shake the Vice Chancellor’s hand and collect the award. Also how funny that this same hall is the one my parents sat in 33 years ago when I graduated. Rowan has managed to get her degree, work part time and have fun at university. She is not quite 21 and so has time to think about what she wants to next. I think she could possibly make a living writing, she is good. However she would need to practice.

Books and Films


Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs Alfred A Knopf, 528 pages, 2007. This is an excellent book; the ‘bridge’ is both in Venice and in the small rural town in New England where the bulk of the story is set. It is a ‘growing-up’ novel about an introverted boy Louis C. Lynch, who, from day one at school is called Lucy, as the teacher makes a mistake in the roll call. He is an only child of a powerful single minded mother, Tessa, and a father who is portrayed as rather a wimp. The story tells of changes in livelihood ‘strategies’ as the tannery, the economic mainstay of the town closes; relationships; and the tension between finding contentment in micro or the macro. It is well observed, and having grown up in a small town, Mbabane in Swaziland, I could identify many of the types of people Russo writes about. Lucy tries to befriend Bobby Marconi, the eldest son of a large family, where the father abuses the mother. The story centres on a relationship that does not really exist except by implication and persistence. I had enjoyed previous books by Russo and will certainly add him to my ‘order on line’ list. I am told the librarians in Helesdon appreciate the way I use the library.

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog, Black Swan, 2011, 496 pages. The story begins with ex- policewoman buying a child off a drug addict at the shopping centre where she is head of security. The character from previous novels Jackson Brodie, another ex-policeman is in the area searching for the roots of a client in New Zealand. Also introduced is Tilly an elderly actress facing Alzheimer’s disease. The story is excellent and the book speeds up the end. As one review says: “All three characters learn that the past is never history and that no good deed goes unpunished”.

The two other books I mention are both authors I have enjoyed but the most recent books are is formulaic, badly written and unbelievable. The first is Cut and Run by Matt Hilton. The story and series are set around an ‘avenger’ by the name of Joe Hunter. The second is Payback by Simon Kernick which brings together two characters: Dennis Milne a former cop, now an assassin DI Tina Boyd a British Policewoman. It is set in Manila. Of course it is easy to be critical and it is worth remembering that there is a publisher who thinks this will sell, and the author is actually producing the words which I envy and I wish I were better at that!


Paul. This is science fiction film released in early 2011. It is the film I watched on the plane from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. It took me a long time to recall the title – the neural pathways in my brain were simply not firing in the right way to bring this back into my brain! The actors are superb Simon Pegg plays Graeme Willy who, with his friend, Clive Gollings are two English comic book nerds and best friends who are in the US attending the annual Comic-Con convention. They are visiting all the sites of major extraterrestrial importance, when a car crashes and an alien named Paul enters the story. They take him to meet up with a space ship that rescues him. and the film centres on events along the way. It is very funny and something of a take off and a homage to Steven Speilberg.

My Australian Experience: October 2010

I have been invited to speak at the Australasian AIDS conference on a number of occasions. This year, the invitation came early, there were no clashes in my diary, and I was able to plan a trip. As a way of reflecting on and sharing the experience, I have written this ‘blog’, the formal trip report is extremely tedious. I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights. This posting cannot hope to capture all that went on, but let me give it a try. There are three broad themes: people, places, and miscellaneous snippets.

Australia is a long way from anywhere. I decided if I were going such a great distance, then I’d at least plan a week in Melbourne so that I could take in more than just the conference venue in Sydney. The jet lag was appalling (both ways). I did the right thing by spending the Monday after I arrived just walking around the city: across the Darling Harbour Bridge; to the Sydney Opera House; through the magnificent Botanic Gardens to Kings Cross (the red light area according the novels I have read, in particular those of Jon Cleary who died in July this year; and back to the hotel. I could feel blisters starting to develop, so I took the monorail for the last couple of kilometres: bitter experience is this is not a good way to start a trip. People are right when they say that Sydney is beautiful. This was definitely one of the times when I regretted not carrying a camera! It is a spectacular, clean, liveable city. Interestingly, the tap water in both cities was incredibly tasty and lacked the chlorine that we get in most of Africa.

I packed as though I was going to a Durban climate, so found myself unprepared for the cool weather. In Melbourne, it was downright chilly in the evening! The lightweight African shirt had only one outing, as I was determined to wear it for my keynote speech. I was generally surprised by the number of men wearing ties and suits, even at the conference. There seems to be an innate conservatism in Australian businessmen and professionals, although my evidence is not up to ‘Randomised Control Trial’ standard.

Everyone living in Australia will inevitably face the distance issue. This challenge is related to not only the physical demands of getting anywhere, but also to the major time difference for overseas family and colleagues. People in Europe, South Africa and the USA are asleep when you want to talk to them! When I was contemplating a position in Melbourne, one of the people on the interview panel gave me some sound advice: “If you come here, you need to commit to Australia.” I also heard the professional scene described not as ‘big fish in a small pond’ but as ‘minnows in a tear’-a delightful metaphor. One Australianism which amused me was ‘fair suck of the saveloy.’ Saveloy is a type of sausage and the phrase itself meaning equity or possibly redistribution.

I stayed in three hotels and no less than five rooms over the two weeks. The conference hotel in Sydney was at Darling Harbour, a touristy part of the city with restaurants and gift shops. Think Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town and you will have the picture. I ate there a number of times and the meals varied from outstanding to quite ghastly. The hotel was a reasonable Novotel, but, and this was my experience across the country, the window did not open. What is it with modern hotels and their objection to fresh air?

In Melbourne I stayed in the north of the city and opposite the Royal Melbourne Children’s hospital, just up the road from the Women’s and General Hospitals. This was a really bad hotel. The design was Soviet-a soul-less block of a building with purple patterned carpet. I stayed in three rooms during my six nights there. The first had a faint odour of talcum powder and faeces, but the window opened a bit so I thought it would be ok. The next morning I had to tell the staff that it was too noisy. It overlooked a major road which had a tram track down the middle! The combination of the rattle of trams, numerous ambulances (hardly surprising given the location), and boy racers in souped up cars and motorbikes made it impossible to sleep. They moved me to a room facing the inside of the gulag. I gave up my bath in exchange for a shower that produced a trickle of water, which changed temperature whenever anyone flushed a toilet in the building – or perhaps even in the neighbourhood.

The talcum powder smell persisted and indeed seemed to permeate the pillows. I understood the reason for this on the Monday when, I saw for the first time, the coach. This hotel was the destination for coach tours for elderly people, and of course women predominate in the cohort. They tottered along the corridors and down the stairs in clouds of powder. Each day a different group, but the same odours, halos of permed hair, and frailty.

I was ok with the hotel, it was convenient for most of the meetings I was attending and just ten minutes away from a nice little gym in a vibrant neighbourhood. I managed to train a good few times, and really enjoyed the jog to the gym. The houses were typical for Melbourne, row or terraced houses with wonderful wrought iron on the porches; very similar to parts of Pietermaritzburg, which makes sense since it was the same era. What is different though, from the colonial periods, is the scale. Durban is just one city; Melbourne and Sydney were many municipalities, each with its own town hall, post office and centre. There is far more variety.

It was great to know so many people in another otherwise foreign city. On the Saturday evening Kate Taylor and her fiancé, Rod, took me out for a Thai dinner and then to a jazz club. Sadly we ended before the music did. They also invited me to dinner in their house (with her mother and father), so I got to see the inside of a typical central Melbourne house. It does smack of South African colonial architecture. The space (and probably building material) allowed them to build single story brick terraced homes, but the need to get to work restricted the sprawl and meant that the old suburbs radiate out along the tram tracks. The new suburbs are typical of any city in the (warm) western world, they sprawl for kilometres along the freeways and lack charm, although the good rains made it verdantly green.

On my last day I got back to the hotel to discover they had, unilaterally, without telling me, changed my room. I was furious because I had unpacked everything, and my sweaty gym kit had been festering on the floor for the previous two days. This had been put, with all my clean clothes, into my case, which was then zipped shut and left in the room. Of course, it meant everything smelt faintly of ammonia. Fortunately the hotel had a do-it-yourself washing machine. The receptionist on duty did not like confrontation so we had to escalate up to the duty manager. I pointed out that they had seen me every day and that I was willing to move, but would have wanted to pack my suitcase myself. The proposed new room was facing the road and the trams, so we negotiated yet another one, even smaller, and still no bath, but the shower actually worked really well! In the end they did not charge for one night’s accommodation, which is why I have not named them (but if you read this you know who you are).

I went to Sydney on Friday to avoid a really early start on Saturday. This stay was in an ‘apartment’ hotel, which meant no food. They sold ‘breakfast packs,’ two chocolate biscuits, cartons of long life milk, cereal, and fruit salad. However to get a bite to eat I had to walk up to a little row of shops. The area was Bantry Bay municipality and it was clearly a working class area. There were food outlets: pizza, Chinese and Thai take-aways and kebab shops.

The worst meal I had was so-called Lebanese, but it owed more to grease than any other national cuisine. This was when Zahed and Shamim Cachalia, who had been a year below me at Waterford School in Swaziland and I arranged to meet for a drink and then decided on the spur of the moment to get supper. Zahed works for ABC TV, for which I had a four minute and thirty two second spot (on ABC news 24). Looking at it again I find myself asking am I really that fat? But the powder really made me look good; yes powder has its place! I also did a radio show with other guests for Late Night Live with an amazing presenter called Phillip Adams-he really had done his homework and asked a series of very sensible questions. I also mentioned I like the sea and surfing and had to clarify in the discussion that I did not mean ‘standing-up-on-a-board’ surfing but ‘lying-on-a-body-board’ surfing.

A week later in Melbourne, I encountered another old friend, Alan Herman, from Swaziland days. He was a paramedic for many years, and now runs his own business and is a pastor. It was really good (and astonishing) to catch up with people I said goodbye to 35 years ago. Would I have recognised them? Probably, and we certainly did not run short of conversation.

It was clear that Waterford was a defining moment in our lives. I was sent there because it was our local school. The Herman family fled Cape Town and washed up in Mbabane where the dad was taken on to teach music, while the mum worked as a cook at the school. They were political exiles without papers. Shamim had been sent to Waterford by her Moslem parents as one of the very few girls to be admitted. She was hundreds of miles from home.

There are so many stories that need to be told about the circumstances under which students attended at Waterford. I was not really aware of the backgrounds of many of the kids and their parents. Mind you it emerged as we talked this lack of awareness was not unique to me. With few exceptions, most of us were insulated and isolated as students. All of it rings as drastically different from today’s world of instant communications.

Overall, the travel was quite exhausting, but I was in business class – using airmiles! I would hate to have to do it in economy. I voyeuristically walked to the back of the plane and there were quite a few empty seats. It would really annoy me if I had paid for a premium economy seat and then discovered that in the back I could lie across three seats. On the flight back to Johannesburg there was a fair amount of turbulence on the way out of Sydney and the purser made a unique announcement:
“Would all passengers please make sure their seatbelts are on, and their children are safely stowed”… [a pause and an embarrassed giggle], “I mean secured.”

The trip was, from my point of view, very successful. I gave five talks and took part in a number of other events, including a really fun debate at the main conference. The debate centered on whether testing and treating was a viable option for ‘our region’. I went first for our team, which meant defining some of the positions. I think we won with a convincing swing because we had actually talked it through and prepared our presentations. I visited four universities in the two cities and walked mile and miles.

Would I, could I live in Australia? It is a hugely attractive country and it works. The informality grates a bit. I was surprised to have the hotel receptionist to glance at my booking and say: “Hello Alan, how are you doing?” I will be thinking about it for some time to come. The next posting will try to capture some more of my processed thought about the country. Because I was spending so much time travelling I have quite a number of books and films to review as I have done below.


I decided to watch this on the way to Sydney because I rather like Ben Stiller. It is the story of a carpenter who moves into his brother’s home on the west coast of the USA to look after the house while the family are on holiday. I think it is set in Los Angeles. Stiller’s character has had a mental breakdown and this story is about him falling in love. I watched it most of the way through and was not impressed. So as with books, I skipped to the end and still did not find it appealing.


I chose this film because it had Nicholas Cage as one of the leads. It is the story of a teenager who decides to become a super hero but with no special powers. It was a great action comedy and I really enjoyed it. Good escapism.


Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, Penguin, 2002, Harmondsworth, 302 pages. 

The story is set in a Southern state in 1964 at the time of the beginning of the civil rights movement. It tells of a young girl who runs away from her father with her African American nanny. They find the women who took in her mother a generation previously. The household comprises August the matriarch, and her sisters, June and May. May is somewhat disturbed, and commits suicide in the course of the story. The title of the book is based on the women’s jobs as bee keepers and honey makers. The theme of bees and how they operate carries throughout. It is a wonderfully observed book about powerful women and is well worth reading. I was quite surprised to discover that the book was first published in 2002, as it only really hit airport bookshops recently, and I became aware of it. I bought it from a second-hand bookshop.

Dave Warner, Exxxpresso, Picador, 2000, Sydney 376 pages. 

In the same a second-hand bookshop I asked for any good Australian crime writing and this was recommended to me by the owner. It is the story of a man who is released from prison and decides to go in to the cafe business, making and selling coffee. The storyline is extremely complicated but it is a rollicking good book. It is set in western Australia between Perth and Kalgoorie; the characters spend a considerable amount of time driving the highway between the two cities. A good read and I shall look for other books by the same author.

T. C. Boyle, The Women, Penguin, New York, 2009, 451 pages. 

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the best architects of the 20th century. Many years ago I was brought to look at some of the buildings he designed in Chicago and was very taken with them. Of course, as with many people of his time, he designed more than buildings. This is a work of fiction but is based on facts surrounding the three main women who shared his life and were his muses. He seems to have lived a completely chaotic life with rocky finances and a series of lovers, one of whom was quite clearly deranged. The book purports to be written by one of his Japanese pupils/apprentices who observes the scene. The only minor failing of the novel is that it does not take us into Lloyd Wright’s head as well as it portrays the women’s perceptions. It is quite hard to read, but well worth persisting.

Gill Schierhout, The Shape of Him, Vintage Books, London, 2009, 210 pages.
As is often the case with reading a book written by someone you know, it was a pleasure to read Gill’s work. It was not however what I expected. The story is of a middle-aged woman, Sarah, who is making a living in South Africa by managing a boarding house. She spends most of her time reflecting on the past including her love affair with a diamond digger. He has what seems like Huntington’s disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder, and is hospitalised during the book. It seems as though he has a daughter and that this child is sent to Sarah who proceeds to look after her. A twist in the tale is when Sarah has an affair with an Indian textile factory manager called Hafferjee. The book is set in Cape Town, some of the small mining towns of the Transvaal, and the diamond diggings. It is beautifully observed both from the point of view of scenery and characters, and was quite thought provoking.

Imran Coovadia, High Low In-between, Umuzi, Roggebaai, 2009, 268 pages. 

There are a small number of Durban novels that I consider to be excellent for capturing the nuances of the city. There are others which don’t – I found it impossible to read Sally Anne Clarkes ‘Small Moving Parts’ even though it is set in Umbilo, a neighbourhood I know well. I have really enjoyed Barbara Trapido’s books – Frankie and Stankie and Sex and Stravinsky. Coovadia tells the story from the point of view of an Indian photographer who has lived outside the country for many years. He returns for his father’s funeral. It is initially believed that his father committed suicide but transpires that he was murdered by a colleague. Set against the Indian background and in the medical school and hospital of Durban, this is partly based on the real events of kidneys being sold and transplanted in the city (from poor Brazilians to rich Israelis). It is gripping. Most characters are believable and his writing about AIDS and race relations in South Africa is accurate and perceptive. I savoured the last few chapters, and did not want it to end.

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, Harper Perennial, New York, 2010, 349 pages. 

This book is of a similar genre to those of Malcolm Gladwell and Nicolas Taleb. It is thought provoking but easily readable. The author has two Ph.Ds-one in cognitive psychology and the other in business administration. In this book he looks at how and why we make decisions which so often seem irrational. Examples of chapters include: ‘The cost of social norms: why we are happy to do things but not when we are paid to do them’; ‘The cycle of distrust: why we don’t believe what marketers tell us’, and ‘The effect of expectations: why the mind gets what it expects’. It is worth reading, probably best with a pen in one’s hand to pick up the key points.

Football Mad: Mid-June 2010

I got back to South Africa on Thursday 3rd June having spent over a month in Norwich, where Douglas was preparing for his GCSE examinations. He worked really hard, and I left feeling proud of him. I travelled on the 06.20 flight out of Norwich to Amsterdam, then took the daylight flight to Johannesburg. It is an arduous journey, but I made good use of the time, marking a PhD, and watching two films, (which are reviewed at the end of the posting). The theme is sport though.

The World Cup kicked off on the 11th June. South Africa held Mexico to a one all draw in the opening match. The mood in the country has been just amazing. The previous Saturday there was a rugby test between Wales and South Africa at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I played squash with my friend Jeremy Grest. After the game we had tea and watched the first 20 minutes of the game. I took his gardener to the bus stop and, on the way home, drove past my local shopping mall. There is, beside the road, a rather seedy bar behind massive steel burglar guards. The clientele are mainly older white people some with missing teeth and most with uncombed hair. I have been there twice and find it a bit odd. In order sit in the bar and watch the television you need to be buy drinks. There on the pavement was a group of, mainly black, car guards, delivery people and security staff, all peering in and cheering wildly as South Africa took the lead. It was truly an astonishing moment to see this engagement around what was, and still is largely, a white sport.

I had the good fortune to be invited by SAB Miller to attend the game between South Africa and the United States in Rustenberg. I spent three nights in an idyllic cottage in Magaliesberg mountains to the east of Pretoria, flying up on the Thursday evening and back on the Sunday. It was a real privilege and very intense. Let me try and bring these events together.

The first theme has to be distances, traffic and infrastructure. Everywhere seemed a ‘long way’, and the traffic made it even longer. My airport pick-up was organised by SAB and we were driven around by a team of older black entrepreneurs. They have set up a co-operative company to provide shuttles and chauffeur drive services. It was a pleasure to be driven by people who are working together. It means, among other things, that all the drivers get a decent salary and most have an investment in the organisation. I have been quite shocked by the salaries paid by the big companies, who, through out-sourcing, totally exploit their drivers.

The traffic generally was quite appalling; on Friday the itinerary had us visiting a project, going to the Indaba Hotel in Sandton for lunch and then dispersing to our various hotels to watch the opening game. We left the project site late, and on reaching Johannesburg, the traffic slowed to a crawl. It took two hours to do 10 kilometers. We abandoned the idea of lunch, bought sandwiches from a shopping centre and went into a bar to see the game. Two outstanding features were the great good humour of everyone we interacted with and the good South Africa response of “we will make a plan”. South Africa came to a standstill on Friday. Most offices and places of employment closed at 12.00 and I gave my staff the whole day off on the grounds that it was not really worth coming in just for four or five hours.

The great achievement of the World Cup (apart from the mood) is the new infrastructure, including the public transport system which is working extraordinarily well. The problem is that South Africans don’t trust it and so clog the roads with their cars. This will be a legacy for a long time.

My cottage was at Phefumula (see The site is well worth looking at. They describe it as: “Against the slopes of the Magaliesberg range is an escape from the hectic Highveld rush, a place of peace and quiet romance. A place to breathe, or just take a deep breath”. It is indeed right up in the mountains at the end of a truly appalling dirt road. Driving the three kilometers from the main road to cottages took 20 minutes in the saloon cars run by the shuttle service, and the undercarriages of the cars kept hitting the ground. It only took five minutes in a 4×4.

The second theme is the amazing feeling in South Africa. It is hard to describe the vibe in the country at the moment. Fans everywhere, the constant blast of the vuvuzelas. I traveled down from Johanesburg on Sunday and the plane, a large Airbus, was jam packed with German fans, all very good humored with occasional football chants being heard about the plane. The announcement is: “passengers are requested not to blow vuvuzela’s on the plane”.

South Africans have put their hearts and souls into making this work. Our crime problem is being addressed by very visible policing and swift justice. Near where I was staying is a lodge where Portuguese journalists were accomodated. They were held up by armed robbers and relieved of cash, laptops and valuables. The police acted incredibly swiftly: the men were arrested, tried and sentenced all within four days. The media, or at least the South African media, made a point of telling us that two of the culprits were Zimbabwean and one was Nigerian. The reason for the speed of the justice is we will only have our visitors in the country for a month and so could not ask them to return for trials. As long as this is real justice I don’t have a problem with it.

We visited two SAB Miller projects. On the Friday a bar in Duduza Township which is part of the “Men in Taverns” project. The goal is to develop responsible drinking and we sat and talked to a number of the participants who are involved in this initiative. The question is whether or not it is possible to have responsible drinking. I believe this is achievable but it is the whole culture that must be changed. I found it most encouraging project.

The second field trip was to the Masakhane Village outside of Magaliesberg. This village of 55 households and approximate 700 people comprises of farm workers who were evicted from their land in 1994. They were allocated land and built their village of corrugated iron shacks. What is unique about this is that they own title to the land and it is run as a form of cooperative. SAB has supported them in a number of ways. We sat in their brand new community hall and walked around the village. What was striking was that this is a community led initiative with SAB and other partners responding to community needs. They have water, a community center and an investment in training people in areas of empowerment and health (a first aid course but wow, it works and people feel empowered). The Masakhane Project website is:

Each household in this community has a small plot of land and on it, with one or two exceptions were shacks, made of leftover bits of corrugated iron. While what there is available seems minimal and the community poverty stricken we found this community is moving forward in substantial and substantive ways. The young men who were appointed as our guides were articulate and confident.

Nonetheless South Africa is a land of contrasts and from there we went to have lunch in a 5-star luxury hotel called De Hoek . What a contrast and how unjust it seems that there can be so much wealth and so much poverty right next to each other. We sat in a superb dining room; were fed a world class meal, incredibly meticulously prepared and served with aplomb and dignity by staff whom probably spends time in poverty stricken surroundings not dissimilar to those of Masakhane.

We drove from Masakhane straight to Rustenberg for the game. It was amazing. The streets were well patrolled and our movement into the stadium area went very smoothly. Of course we had parking available right next to the stadium which made life very much easier. The English supporters were out in full force with St George flags, face paints and enthusiasm. I made the mistake of saying use my forehead as a canvass and the picture is in the gallery! There were some Americans but they were in a minority. We arrived on schedule at 4.30 and discovered that the hospitality area did not open until 5.30. We waited outside, but it was all very good humored; people standing around chatting and enjoying the vibe and the environment. Once in the hospitality area we had drinks and yet more food before going in to take our seats. The Royal Bafokeng stadium holds about 42 000 people and was almost full. I suspect the empty seats were those people who had been unable to get tickets to travel to South Africa. It was a sea of colour and wave of noise. I can’t even begin to describe it. We had been very well provided for and this included earplugs. They were most necessary as the vuvuzelas are quite deafening. I was absolutely amazed by the volume. Our seats towards the middle of the pitch and just nine rows back. The game itself was scrappy as there are high levels of nerves among the teams. Nonetheless everyone was out of their seats when England took the lead and again when the USA scored an equalizer.

Traveling back afterwards was a lengthy process. The roads were clogged but it turned out that this was due to a motor accident, something that one cannot plan for. My World Cup experience has begun with a bang and I really feel that we, in South Africa, should be proud and pleased with what we have achieved to date. It is remarkable.

A few striking things. For some reason there were real glass bottles available in the stadium. This has been banned at rugby matches in South Africa and I believe in most other settings. It meant that trying to move down the row was treacherous as it was like walking on ball bearings. I cannot believe that they will allow these to be sold at future matches. The way the game is supposed to work is when the ball goes out of play one of the six or seven strategically placed ball holders around the field will throw a new one in for a quick continuation of the game. Clearly this experience was not one that the staff had had and as a result it was very funny to see a ball being kicked into the crowd and the man almost pleading that it be returned as soon as possible. The teams are transported to and from the matches in coaches and these are provided with a police escort. I’m not certain that I altogether approve of this blue light cavalcade as it disrupts traffic for everybody else.


“Crazy Heart” is the story of a moderately successful country and western singer. It is similar to “Walk the Line” the Johnny Cash story. The key character is played by Jeff Bridges, who sympathetically portrays an older man, with a serious drinking problem, battling to make his way in an unforgiving world. The film ends with him having cleaned up his act, but not making it with the woman he falls in love with. It is an unusual but touching ending.

“Invictus” directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of the Rugby World Cup won by South Africa in 1995. It describes the astute politics of Nelson Mandela in allowing the Springboks to keep their name and their colours, in the face of opposition from the new Government. The story covers the period from the release of Mandela up to the when Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon accepts the Cup at Ellis Park after beating the All Blacks. It is a remarkable story in terms of rugby and the politics around it

Mandela is sympathetically portrayed by Morgan Freeman. There are some little twists in the story that make it intriguing. For example there is mention of the danger of an attack on Mandela at the rugby game. A few seconds later we see a white male looking at the stadium through binoculars, but nothing comes of it. It also showed the jumbo jet flying low over the stadium at the opening match. I wonder how legal this was. This film proved to me how much altitude and wine heighten emotions. I sobbed my way through it.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is based on a children’s book. I found the film to be gloomy, odd and quite unpleasant so only watched 20 minutes.

Life Is Landing Safely I Think.

During my visit to Den Hague last month a few of us shared a cab to get to dinner. We were talking about books we had read, found influential, and enjoyed. One of the party mentioned a book by the Harvard President, Professor Faust, on ‘death in the American Civil War’. I decided it sounded worth reading and ordered it from our local library. It took only a matter of a very few days before I got the email informing me the book had arrived and I should collect it. The reason for the speed: Norfolk has a strong link with the American air force, during the Second World War the county was the base for Americans bombers, indeed there are disused airfields dotting the countryside. I think there were two main reasons for this: first it is quite close to the continent; second the county is mostly flat so it was easy to lay the concrete and there are no mountains to fly into. To commemorate this link, the 2nd Air Division Association set up a Memorial Library in part of main Norfolk library. The book was one of their donations. It is indeed remarkably interesting and it is one of the books I review at the end of this post.

Time to read has been fantastic and I have written to a number of the authors whose work I have been impressed by. Faust wrote a gracious response to my gush of praise. Also reviewed is a Canadian detective writer Louise Penny whose book I thoroughly enjoyed, until page 395 where she described how one of the characters had been host on TV on a cookery programme on “Radio Canada”. In my view you listen to radio and watch television so I was disappointed by the apparent inaccuracy. I sent Penny an email saying I thought this was odd. She wrote back and explained that in Quebec this is accepted term for the national broadcaster – you watch Radio Canada. As an aside a British detective writer, Stuart Pawson, had a Swazi prince as a character in one of his books, but he did the man and the country justice. I wrote and asked him how he had managed this and he told me his sister had lived there in the 1970s so we exchanged a few emails.

The events of the past few weeks: landings; articles; and dogs. Let me do this in reverse order. We had one planned and one unplanned house guest a few weekends ago. Ailsa fetched her mother from Yorkshire on Thursday and she stayed until Monday. She is 84 and was good company, an easy guest. There is a ‘theory of relativity’ that says the further away and the less you see of relatives the better you get on. This may be true in some families, or even for some relations in all families. (As I write this I realize that it may be impossible to do write about events in my day life and not offend someone. That is assuming it is read! So if you are offended then first let me thank you for reading this).

The unplanned house guest was a young little white West Highland terrier called Daisy. Her owners had gone to the (second) wedding of a brother. Ailsa offered to look after the dog although they had expected the father-in-law to do this, at least at night. It seems when he heard they had a dog sitter he decided that he could abdicate all responsibility, we had Daisy for most of the weekend. On Friday she arrived. Initially our dog, Deedee, thought it quite fun and they chased around the garden. As the weekend went on Deedee found it harder and harder to be nice! The growling and lip curling increased in frequency and duration. It was funny to see her slinking off upstairs to her bed as soon as she could get away. This is, of course, something I tend to do as well. She was not impressed at all by a quintessentially doggy dog. Daisy chewed Deedee’s food bowl; yapped for no reason; and farted the most pungent doggy farts.

Of course it was not just Deedee who found this difficult; the cat stayed well clear, coming in only to eat and sleep in the back room. Unfortunately we also had some of the heaviest rain of the year, so I suspect she was a rather wet cat. I managed to step in dog shit three times in one day! No one was impressed by this, especially since I did not realize until I had walked round the house. There are no comparisons with Granny who was more than welcome, appreciated the food, helped clear up, talked to Douglas and Rowan, and, I think, enjoyed her visit.

This is the last week of my sabbatical and I have been doing some reflection on what I have actually achieved, both in terms of what I wanted and what was possible: these are not necessarily the same. It has been an excellent period for writing articles. A number came out of the ‘Is AIDS exceptional?’ paper I prepared for the aids2031 project in March and April. This was serious research and thinking, and it means I am clear what my position is on the issue. The original work is available at . My co-authors on the papers are Julia Smith, who was at HEARD as part of Rotary Peace Fellowship, and Khaled Ahmed the ODI Fellow. They have helped me turn my paper into articles and we hope we will get three published. When I actually sat down and worked out what I have produced and done I was very pleased! On the other hand I have not gotten as far as I wanted with either the ‘Political Economy of Swaziland’ or the novel.

Sabbaticals are a chance to read, think, and do things which one would otherwise not have time for. Learning to fly definitely falls into the last category, and I have moved ahead on this. About two weeks ago I was called up by the owner of the school: the weather was unexpectedly good, did I want to go and do my stalling lesson – which is something you have to do before you are allowed to learn to land. My reply was, “Of course”. The advantage of going up with Brian is he likes flying to the south of Norwich, David always goes north, apart from anything, else I got to see a different part of the county.

As I had the stalls done, we were ready to begin the circuits. This means learning to land, which is, of course, how every flight should end, ideally with the gentle kiss of tyres on the concrete. So the procedure, which has four stages, (if this is too much technical detail skip to the next paragraph)is: take off with full power, nose up, climb to 500 feet, turn right (in Norwich it is a right hand circuit) while climbing to 1000 feet; get the attitude of the nose right, bring back the power, trim the plane so it stays level and turn onto the downwind leg; call air traffic control and get clearance to land; when you have gone far enough turn back towards the runway, reduce power, trim wheel back four turns, first stage of flap, carb heat on, turn for final approach, second stage of flap; and then, gulp, the fun begins, you land. At this point the runway is in front of you and the goal is to bring the plane in at a 3 degree angle. Just above the runway you are meant to lift the nose and cut the power and keep the plane flying until it gently touches down in what is called ‘a flare’. If you are too high you bounce, if you are too low you break the airplane. Better bounce than break!

I have now landed five times by myself, four times with some help, and once the instructor said, “I have control”, and took us round again. So you are travelling at about 90 kph (which does not sound very much), and you have to put the plane onto hard concrete. Fortunately the Piper is a slow, stable plane and Norwich airport has a runway that is wide and long enough to land jets, I am very grateful for this. I have found landing to be really challenging. The next bit though is great: flaps up, full power, and off into the air again – this is called ‘touch and go’ or ‘circuit and bumps’.

The instructor said, “I can teach you how to fly but no one can teach you how to land. This is something that you only learn with practice.” He is right, and this is what I will be doing for the next little while until I have mastered the entire process including radio call and clearances. Apart from fear, my biggest challenge is to remember to keep my hand on the throttle, during both take off and landing. It seems counterintuitive to take one hand off the ‘wheel’.

On Monday 19th October I leave to return to Durban via a conference in Brussels. The plan is to spend about four weeks in Southern Africa and then head for Vancouver for an International AIDS Society governing council retreat, then to the UK until early January. Once I am back in Durban in the new year then I will be there for a concerted period.

Books and website:

Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2008 364 pages. The Civil War lased from 1861 to 1865 and tore America apart. The author tells of how the country and people dealt with death on a massive scale. As she says Americans had never and still have not experienced anything like the losses. Two percent of the US population died in uniform, 620,000 men, from both the Union and the Confederate sides. This is roughly the same number as those lost in all of America’s other wars from the Revolution to Korea. The equivalent death toll in a war today would see six million deaths. Faust argues that this sacrifice was to have lasting but little-understood impact. “Death created the modern American union,” she writes, “not just by ensuring national survival, but by shaping enduring national structures and commitments.”

While I found the description and thought put into this book to be extraordinarily moving and thought provoking, there was one thing which really surprised me. She describes the lengths the US government went to, gathering the Union dead and ensuring they were buried and commemorated after the conclusion of hostilities. To the victor the spoils, and the respect it seems. The same thing was not done for the Confederate fallen, this was left to private initiatives in the south. How much would more quickly would the wound have healed if it been done, would it have speeded reconciliation if this. I wonder which was the first war when the dead of both sides were treated with respected by both sides. This is book is well worth reading content 10, style 8.

Alan and Barbara Pease, Why Men Want Sex and Women Need Love: Unravelling the Simple Truth: Understanding What He Wants and What She Wants from a Relationship, Orion 2009 288 pages. The strap line is ‘Sex is like air: it’s not important unless you aren’t getting any’. I found their book, Body language, to be perceptive and useful. This is disappointing; it is trite and probably inaccurate. It is true that there are differences between men and women but the interpretation they put forward are way too simplistic and even offensive at times.

Louise Penny, Murder stone, Headline 2009 416 pages My escape genre of literature is detective fiction and Penny has developed a delightful Québécoise Chief Inspector called Gamache. Her first few books were set in an idyllic village in rural Quebec called Three Pines. In this book she moves the action and some of the characters to a hotel in the same area. This is a good move, after all how many murders can you have in a small village. She continues to develop the chief characters and the dénouement is quite unexpected. The family at the centre of the book is mostly odious. The Chief Inspector supposedly on holiday suddenly finds himself in the middle of a murder enquiry. Well worth reading also she has an excellent website.a

Travel To The USA

When I travel I write a letter at the end of the journey for three reasons. First it helps we think about what I have done; second it is a diary; thirdly I want to write and this is a way of getting practice. You may enjoy it, I believe it is a sort of “blog”.

This is the bank holiday weekend in the UK. I have just returned after two weeks in the USA. I went over on Sunday 19th April to Washington. The queue in the US immigration was the longest, but not the slowest, I have ever been in. It took nearly 90 minutes to get through. Once one entered the end there was no way out if you needed to visit the toilet, faint or generally change your mind. I suppose though, in fairness it, was an orderly, regimented queue (the Americans are surprisingly conformist for a nation that boasts of freedom, getting on the train from New York to Washington involves entering a ‘holding pen’ and then queuing with ID on display). Also it beats the scrums of airports like Kiev where the fittest beat their way to the front.

On the Monday I went to a seminar at the World Bank and then gave a presentation at the Centre for Global Development. The Tuesday and Wednesday were spent at the World Bank for the Economic Reference Group meeting (HEARD is the secretariat). I then flew to New York, this was a mistake as it involves getting to and from airports and all the time checking in and going through security procedures. The following week I had a night in DC, but went up and back by train. One of my Ugandan colleagues was in the meeting in DC with me and was then returning to New York to go to the same meeting as me. He flew and as a result had to go to the airport in Washington at 3pm. Due to over booking and delays he did not get to the hotel until 1.30 am. I, by contrast, on the train, left at 5.15 and was at the hotel by 9.30 pm.
The Thursday and Friday were spent with UNDP and other members of the UN family talking about our work and giving them some thoughts on directions. This included a public lecture at UNICEF. It seems the audiences for these meetings have become smaller, a sign of the diminishing interest in HIV/AIDS. An alternative explanation is that it is me! I then had the week end in New York. On the Tuesday I gave a lunch time lecture at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and took the train to Washington for an AIDS2031 financing meeting, returning on the Wednesday night for the IAVI Policy Advisory Committee meeting and then flying out on Friday evening.

So some New York vignettes. – My room was on the 50th floor of the Millennium Hilton Hotel right opposite where the World Trade Centre buildings stood. This area is a building site, with almost round the clock, construction. I started in a room on the 34th floor facing the centre, due to the noise moved up and to the other side of the building. The view was spectacular, Brooklyn Bridge with its tracery of girders, perhaps a mile away, the traffic dominated by the flashes of yellow New York cabs. The Hudson river with bustling boats taking tourists up and down. In the distance Central Park a green oasis in the high rises. And despite being on the 50th floor it was still noisy: sirens, jack hammers, trucks and a throb of people.

At Penn Station I went to buy a book I have wanted to read. There in the bookshop was a stand of Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions. Yes, the VSI on HIV/AIDS was among them, and I had to tell the storekeeper that it was mine. What a nice moment!! When I see it on the stand at Schipol Airport I will know it has made it.

I went out with friends most evenings. On the Saturday we had a pizza and then went to a piano bar called Marie’s Crisis Centre in the East Village. The idea (I learnt) is that the piano player beats out music and people stand round and sing. It was great. The music tended towards Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and old musicals. I had not realised it was a mainly gay crowd until I noticed that there were very few women and many of the men had their arms round each other.
The cab driver who took me back to the hotel one evening was Irish New York. He travels back to Ireland every two years with an organisation called ‘Sons of Cork’. His father was the last official New York cobblestone layer! He was a fireman and was one of the people called down on 9/11. This brought home to me how traumatic the event was for many people, and of course so many firemen lost their lives.

Walking back to the hotel I asked directions to the World Trade Centre because I can’t bring myself to call it ‘Ground Zero’. The hawker looked at me with disgust a pity and said. “It is not there any more”. So there!
The sunshine was amazing and it is perhaps the New York of streets in shadow that is the most evocative. The hotel was in the financial district. One evening I walked past the stock exchange, but in the side streets though were small shops and union offices. A city of contrast!

And my reading: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Penguin 312 pages, 2008 . These professors at the University of Chicago argue that totally free markets can lead to disasters because human individuals are not actually very good decision-makers. They are pushing what they call `libertarian paternalism’. It was an interesting book and gave me food for thought. It is too long and too much is from US examples. Worth reading? Yes and 7.5 out of 10 for content; 8 of 10 for ideas and 6.5 for writing styles.

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Guns, Votes, Debt and Delusion in Redneck America by Joe Bageant, Potobello books, 288 pages August 2008. I really enjoyed this book which was recommended by Lori Tarbett in Carleton. Bageant writes about class in the US and the poverty and inequality. Most striking is the lack of hope. Worth reading? Yes and 9 out of 10 for content; 8 for ideas and 8 for writing style, it does get a bit polemical at times.

The Other Side of the Bridge, Mary Lawson. This is fiction and was nominated for the Booker Prize. Published by Chatto & Windus it is 275pp, 2006. She has written one other book ‘Crow Lake’. This is fiction set in Canada at its best. It begins in the mid 1930s and ends in 1990 and is the story of love and sibling rivalry in a small town in Northern Canada. Worth reading? Absolutely! 9 out of 10 for content; 8 for perception and 9 for writing style.
Let me end there and send this off.