That’s not a fair question . . .

I worked overseas for much of my career—just over 27 years—in three countries. For those who are new to my blog, I’m from the UK, and I worked in agricultural research (on potatoes and rice) in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, besides spending a decade in the UK in between teaching plant sciences at the University of Birmingham.

I have been asked, from time to time, which of the three countries Steph and I enjoyed the most. That’s not really a fair question.

Each country was a totally different experience, reflecting to a large extent that stage of our lives. We were young and newly-married in Peru in the early 1970s, our first time abroad. We raised our elder daughter Hannah in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, and were already in our early 40s when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, with two growing daughters: Hannah was 13, and Philippa just nine (born in Worcestershire in the UK). I got to learn a second language, Spanish, and became quite fluent by the time we left the Americas in 1981.

Now that I’ve been retired for over a decade, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on those years spent abroad.


laurent_amerique_du_sud_politiqueI won’t deny that I have a particular soft-spot for Peru. It was a country I’d wanted to visit since I was a small boy, when I often spent hours poring over maps of South America, imagining what those distant countries and cities would be like to visit. 

I don’t know why I was particularly drawn to the map of South America. I guess it’s the iconic shape for one thing. But, when I first moved up to high school in 1960, just before my 12th birthday, our geography lessons focused on several South American countries. I wrote to a number of embassies in London asking for information packs, and was rewarded over the following weeks with a host of brochures, maps, and the like.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (I have posted several stories elsewhere about my early days in Lima), I was offered, in February 1971, the opportunity to work in Peru, initially for just a year from September that year. Things didn’t go to plan, and it wasn’t until January 1973 that I actually landed in Lima, which became my home for the next three years.

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13 October 1973

Steph joined me in July, and we married the following October in the Miraflores suburb where we rented an apartment. Working at the International Potato Center (known as CIP through its Spanish acronym) we both traveled frequently to the center’s research station in Huancayo, an important town in the central Andes of Peru, in the broad and fertile Mantaro valley, a 300 km journey that often took six hours or more. The highway, the Carretera Central, crossed the Andes at a highest point of 4,843 metres (15,890 ft) at Ticlio (around Km 120).

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In my own work collecting indigenous varieties of potatoes, I traveled to many parts of northern Peru, in the Departments of Ancash, La Libertad, and Cajamarca in 1973 and 1974.

And to the south around Lake Titicaca in the Department of Puno and near Cuzco, where I continued my research towards a PhD.

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Collecting potato flower buds for chromosome counts, from a farmer’s field near Cuzco, in February 1974.

Steph and I also took great pleasure in taking our Volkswagen deep into the mountains, and on long trips down the coast to Arequipa and up to Lake Titicaca. And north to the Callejón de Huaylas in Ancash, below Peru’s highest mountain Huascarán, and on to Cajamarca further north.

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Looking north to the Callejon de Huaylas, and Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu just a week after I arrived in Peru, and had great pleasure taking Steph there in December the same year. In fact we delayed our honeymoon so we could book a stay at the tourist hotel at Machu Picchu (a hotel that closed many years ago).

Enjoying Machu Picchu in December 1973.

Our years in Lima were special. As I said, it was the first time Steph and I had worked abroad. CIP was a young organization, founded just over a year before I joined. There was a small group of staff, pioneers in a way, and there weren’t the layers of bureaucracy and procedures that bedevil much larger and longer-established organizations.

Peru is a stunningly beautiful country, and lived up to all my expectations. I was not disappointed. It had everything: culture, history, archaeology, landscapes. And wonderful food. You name it, Peru had it. 


But, after three years, it was time to move on, and that’s when we began a new chapter in Costa Rica from April 1976 a new chapter. Professionally, for me it was a significant move. I’d turned 27 a few months earlier. CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program to adapt potatoes to hot and humid conditions, so-called ‘tropical potatoes’. I was on my own; I had to rely on my own resources to a large extent. It was a steep learning curve, but so worthwhile and stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

We remained in Costa Rica for almost five years, based at a regional agricultural research institute, CATIE, in the small town of Turrialba, some 70 km east of San José, the capital city.

The CATIE administration building

We enjoyed trips to the volcanoes nearby: Turrialba, Irazú, and Poás, to the beaches of northwest Costa Rica, just south of the frontier with Nicaragua on the Guanacaste Peninsula.  Also to the north of Panama where potatoes were the main crop in the volcanic region just south of the international border.

Hannah was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. It was a great place to raise a small child. In 1980 we took her the Monteverde National Biological Reserve in the northwest of the country (and many hours drive from Turrialba) in search of the Resplendent Quetzal.

Professionally, I learnt a lot about potatoes as a crop, about the management of potato diseases, and seed production, and contributed to setting up one of the first multi-country programs among any of the CGIAR centers. PRECODEPA as it was known set the standard for multilateral cooperation between national programs for many years to come.

I had a great team, albeit small, working with me: Jorge, Moisés, and Leda, and I wrote about them and catching up again after 40 years in a recent blog post.

Costa Rica is such a beautiful, green country, a tropical paradise, with about 25% of its land area set aside for national parks and the like. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and I spent many hours sitting on the doorstep at home, sipping a super ice-cold beer (Cerveza Tropical was my beverage of choice) watching the multitude of birds that visited our garden. On one Christmas bird survey in the Turrialba valley, me and my birding partner spotted around 100 different species in half a day! And mammals as well: skunks, armadillos, and coatimundi among those found in the garden, not to mention some of the world’s most poisonous snakes.

After almost five years there, it was time to move on, with the expectation of a posting with CIP to the Philippines. Instead we returned to the UK in 1981, and didn’t actually make it to the Philippines until a decade later. An archipelago of more than 7600 islands; the Land of Smiles.


By the end of the 1980s I was much less enamored of academic life, and had begun to look out for new opportunities. One particularly interesting one came along in September 1990 when I applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

Having been interviewed at the beginning of January 1991, I was offered the position a couple of weeks later, and I moved to the Philippines (without the family) on 1 July that year. Steph and the girls joined me just after Christmas.

We had a comfortable single storey residence at IRRI Staff Housing, a gated community that nestled under a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling.

Mt Makiling, from the IRRI research farm.

The IRRI research center was about ten minutes from home, and an institute bus took us to and fro over the course of the day. Staff Housing had tennis courts and a swimming pool, as well as basketball and volleyball courts, all in regular use by my colleagues and their families. Lilia was our full-time, live-in helper for almost the whole 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s there was also a large group of children the same age as Hannah and Philippa, and Staff Housing was a safe environment for them to play, although I have since learned that they all got up to some daring escapades at night. Like climbing the water tower!

Steph kept herself busy with her daily swim, and a range of hobbies, including her small orchid collection, and beading (one hobby that has grown and grown!) I had a busy time at work, and less time for leisure at home. I enjoyed a barbecue whenever we could, and for many years I kept a small aviary of budgerigars. Just after I arrived in the Philippines I adopted a Siamese cat, Pusa, who finally succumbed to the ripe old age of 20 in 1998, when we acquired another Siamese, Tara. I wrote about our feline companions in this post.

But one thing Steph and I shared in common, though not to the same degree in one respect, was our love of the beach and sea. Before moving to the Philippines, I had never even snorkeled. That all changed in February 1992 when we made our first (and only) visit to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Shortly afterwards, Hannah learned to scuba dive, and I followed a year later in 1993 eventually completing more than 360 dives, all at Anilao south of Los Baños. Philippa learned a few years later when she was old enough (you had to be 13), but Steph never did take to scuba diving, being content with snorkeling the stretch of beach in front of our favorite beach resort, Arthur’s Place.

Road travel in the Philippines was always a bit of a nightmare. Inadequate roads, too many vehicles, and not enough road discipline, especially among the jeepney and tricycle drivers.

The drive to Manila could take a couple of hours, often more, and it wasn’t until just before we left the Philippines in 2010 that the main highway to Manila, the South Luzon Expressway or SLEX was finally upgraded significantly. Likewise the road connecting SLEX to the south coast where we went to the beach.

Hannah and Philippa attended the International School Manila (ISM) that was, in those days, located in the heart of Makati, the main business district of Manila. The school day started at 07:15 which meant they had to be on the road by 06:00 in those fist years. By the time Philippa graduated from high school in 1999, the buses were leaving for Manila by 04:30, and not returning home until about 16:00 or so (the school day finishing around 14:00). Phil would often go for a swim, have her dinner, and in her final two years at ISM, when she was studying for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), she would have homework until about midnight. Then she snatched a few hours sleep before heading off early the next morning to school once again. All the children took blankets and pillows on the bus and caught with what sleep they could.

For both Hannah and Philippa these were stressful, but ultimately fulfilling, school years. The system was very different from the English system, the academic side very demanding and competitive, especially the IB curriculum. However, both girls did flourish and the hard work and discipline required to get through saw them in good stead later on in their university careers, with both earning a PhD degree in psychology!

Professionally, my years at IRRI were very rewarding. As Head of GRC, one of my most important responsibilities was to manage the world’s largest and genetically most-diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species (with more than 130,000 different seed samples) in the International Rice Genebank. I had a staff of about 75 researchers and assistants. I learnt a lot about people management. However, my task were made so much easier by having so many dedicated professionals to support me.

After a decade genebanking, I moved to IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), and set up an office to handle the institute’s interactions with its donors and fund-raising. And I remained as DPPC until my retirement in 2010.

Much as I had enjoyed my years with GRC, setting up the DPPC Office with hand-picked staff was very rewarding. I had a great team: Corinta, Zeny, Sol, Yeyet, Vhel, and Eric, and they never (well, hardly ever) let me—or IRRI—down.

Christmas 2004 at Antonio’s in Tagaytay. L-R: me, Sol, Eric, Corinta, Vhel, and Zeny.

30 April 2010, and my last day at IRRI. L-R: Eric, Corinta, Zeny, me, Vhel, and Yeyet.

We had such a lot of fun together. There was a lot of laughter in the DPPC Office. We even played badminton together once a week.

But we took our work seriously enough, and helped raise the institute’s annual budget to USD60 million.

In 2009, Steph and I had the opportunity of our first and only long road trip in the Philippines. We always took our annual leave in one block and returned to the UK each summer, so spent little time exploring the Philippines, something I now regret. Anyway, me and my DPPC team decided that we’d take a few days off (with Steph joining us) to visit the world famous (and World Heritage Site) rice terraces in the north of Luzon. That was a fantastic trip, which I wrote about here.

The rice terraces above Banaue.

Enjoying a beer together after a long day in the sun. L-R: Corinta, Zeny, our driver, Vhel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

At the Batad rice terraces, after a long walk down the mountain. L-R: Yeyet, Steph, Eric, Vhel, and Corinta.


So there we have it: a short trip down memory lane. I have been very fortunate, blessed even, to have worked in three remarkable countries and alongside some of the best professionals I could have hoped for. I have no regrets about making that decision, in early 1973 to move abroad. It has been a fulfilling career in international agricultural research, and I’ve certainly been able to explore this wonderful world of ours, as you will have discovered if you ever perused my blog to any depth.

No vampires . . . not even a Goth!

Hardly surprising, really. It was the middle of the day, and the sun was beating down the whole time we were there. The hottest day of the year to date, just earlier this week.

So where were we? In Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast, about 75 miles south from our home in Newcastle (map). But we weren’t in search of Count Dracula and his cohorts. No, we were there to visit the impressive ruins of 13th century Whitby Abbey on the headland jutting out into the North Sea, and overlooking Whitby town and harbor.

The view over Whitby from St Mary’s churchyard next to the abbey.

But what’s all this about vampires and Goths? Well, Irish author Bram Stoker used the ruins of Whitby Abbey as a backdrop to part of his narrative in Dracula (published in 1897). And the Dracula (and Goth) connection has been keenly adopted and celebrated in Whitby to this very day.


Humans have occupied the Whitby headland for millennia, with good archaeological evidence from pre-history, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon times.

It was in the mid-seventh century that a nun, St Hild, founded a monastery at Whitby, and it quickly became a seat of learning.

Nothing remains of the Anglo-Saxon monastery, nor of the stone building that replaced it from the 11th century. Just looking at the silhouette of the 13th century ruins against a deep blue sky it’s not hard to imagine how magnificent Whitby Abbey must have been in its Benedictine heyday. Until, that is, Henry VIII got his grubby regal hands on it in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Thereafter, the abbey and its lands became the property of the Chomley family, who built a grand house beside the abbey ruins, presumably using stone scavenged from the ruins. The house standing today (built in the late 17th century) now houses a small museum and the English Heritage shop.


But let’s get back to the ruins.

Similar in design to other monasteries in the region, such as Rievaulx and Fountains, Whitby Abbey was rebuilt in the 13th century in the Gothic style. There’s a brief description of the various architectural stages on the English Heritage website.

Because it stands proudly on a headland, and not surrounded by woodland or hills, it looks in some ways much more impressive than its larger counterparts. From a distance of several miles, as the road into Whitby from the west (the A171, Guisborough Rd) drops quite dramatically from the edge of the North York Moors to the coast, the monastery is a clearly visible landmark standing proudly above Whitby along the River Esk.

The abbey’s sandstone has weathered to a delicious light brown in some places. There’s certainly sufficient ruins remaining to appreciate how it must have appeared centuries ago. Although it has suffered the ravages of time. Even as recently as 1914, when it was shelled by the German Navy that was attacking a coastguard emplacement on the headland.

Here are just a few photos of the Abbey. I have posted a complete set of photos in this album.

We couldn’t have wished for better weather to see Whitby Abbey ruins in all their majesty. We visited Whitby just once before, in 1988, but not the Abbey. So, it had been a long-held aspiration to return one day. I have a feeling that it won’t be the last. But not in when the Whitby Goth Weekend is in full swing.


 

 

Morris dancing and genetic resources – an unlikely combination

I was never much good at taking exams. That is, until I studied for my Masters degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham in 1970-1971. So how come I improved?

It was exactly 50 years ago, Tuesday 1 June 1971, when I sat the first of four written exams over consecutive days. It was also the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday, the 31st and the last Monday of May. I spent that day—all day, in fact—Morris dancing in Lichfield, a town in south Staffordshire famous for its three-spired medieval cathedral, the ‘city of philosophers’ according one of its famous sons, Samuel, Dr Johnson.

Let me backtrack a few years.

Soon after arriving in Southampton in October 1967 to begin my undergraduate studies at the university, I joined the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society in the Students’ Union, although I’d never danced before. Then, a year later, I co-founded (with Dr Joe Smartt, a genetics lecturer in the Department of Botany) the Red Stags Morris that is still dancing today although no longer associated with the university for many years now.

The Red Stags dancing outside the Arts Faculty in March 1970 at a university Open Day. I’m the second dancer from the left, facing Joe Smartt, with Dudley Savage from the Winchester Morris Men playing the fiddle.

As I described in that earlier post about the Red Stags, we were supported from the outset by the Winchester Morris Men, and during the summer term we would join them when they danced out around the villages and pubs of Hampshire. Such a beautiful county.

Each Late Spring Bank Holiday, the Winchester Morris Men would also organize a Day of Dance, beginning in late morning and lasting well into the evening, and probably visiting half a dozen villages in the process (and their hostelries). The Red Stags joined the 1969 Day of Dance around the New Forest and ending up in Winchester by early evening. By then, we’d developed some dancing skills in the Headington and Adderbury traditions and didn’t embarrass ourselves among much more accomplished dancers. Here is a group of photos taken on that particular Day of Dance, 26 May.

Move on a year. In May 1970, the Late Spring Bank Holiday (25 May) fell on the day before my Final exams were due to start. The weather was glorious, just the sort that was never conducive for exam revision. Joe Smartt encouraged me to take that last day off from revision and join the Morris tour. Peer pressure was too great. I declined, and that’s something I have regretted ever since. Those final few hours of revision didn’t help me one iota, and my exam performance over the next week was only satisfactory to say the least, not the glory I hoped for (but didn’t really expect).

Nevertheless, I was accepted on to the MSc course at Birmingham, and moved there in September 1970, full of anticipation for this new field of plant genetic resources, and looking forward to joining a new Morris side.

There were two choices in Birmingham: Jockey Men’s Morris Club or Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club [1]. I chose the latter. One of the people who’d encouraged me to join the folk dance society at Southampton, Dr Edward Johns, had moved to Birmingham and had joined Green Man a couple of years previously.

I danced with Green Man on a weekly basis for the next two years before I moved to Peru in January 1973. When I returned to the UK in 1981, I rejoined Green Man, and became Squire (club chairman) in 1982 for a year. Unfortunately I developed arthritis in my knees and my doctor discouraged me from from dancing. So, by about 1985 or ’86, my dancing days were over.

That’s me, fourth from the right.

One of Green Man’s traditions, something they did for at least 50 years, was leading the Lichfield Bower Procession (a community event dating back to the 12th century) each Late Spring Bank Holiday. This is a procession around the city, of a couple of miles at the very least. And Green Man would dance the Bower Processional, with arms outstretched and carrying leafy boughs (typically elm in the past) the whole way, but with frequent stops to take refreshment on board.


In 1971, I was again faced with the same dilemma: should I spend the last day before exams doing some last minute revision, or head off and forget my exams fears by enjoying a day of Morris dancing, and my first Lichfield Bower?

Actually, I’d more or less made the decision some months previously. Morris dancing it was. During the MSc course I had upped my game and really learnt how to study more effectively and, more importantly, how to organize myself in preparation for the written exams. Everything went to plan, and by the end of May I felt I’d done all that I could to prepare myself for the coming week of exams. I was ready and primed, so to speak.

So, without any last minute feelings of guilt, just after breakfast I joined my fellow club members traveling to Lichfield, and spent the next twelve or thirteen hours dancing, and consuming not an inconsiderable amount of beer in the process, probably at least twelve pints over the course of the day.

I don’t think I got to bed much before midnight, but then had one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever enjoyed. Not a care in the world, waking up the following morning fully refreshed and relaxed and ready to take on whatever the exam threw at me.

And the outcome? Well it’s plain to see.

During the 1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Birmingham, I gave my own students the same advice: Don’t spend the final day before exams trying to cram last minute information. Take the day off, do something completely different to take your mind of the coming exams. Relax, have a good time, and then have a good night’s sleep.

I know hindsight is a wonderful thing. I just wish I’d taken my own advice back in 1970.


[1] Sadly, in 2017 Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club decided that the side was no longer viable. With ageing members and not recruiting new blood, the club was no longer able to put up a side of six dancers and musician. Thus came to an end 60 or more years of dancers from a club that had provided two Squires of the Morris Ring, John Venables and Ray King. Click here to read a short account of how and why Green Man came to an end.

Life goes on . . . taken too soon

Do you remember the first 45 single or album (LP or CD) that you bought? I bought the single Keep on Running by The Spencer Davis Group in late 1965.

I also remember precisely when and where I bought these albums: Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the White Album by The Beatles. My first CD (in 1991 just before I headed to the Philippines) was Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, and I’ve been a massive Mac fan ever since. And in the intervening years, I went on to expand my CD collection, although with streaming now available I’ve not added to it for at least a decade.

In my CD collection, several artists or groups are represented by multiple discs: The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler, R.E.M., Eric Clapton, Crowded House, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, to name just a few.

For others, I have maybe a couple of CDs or just a single one. Among these is one artist whose work I have come to relish over the decades, but it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago (through Spotify) did I finally appreciate just what an incredible singer/songwriter he was. I have only two of his ten albums. I don’t know why it took me so long to find out.

I’m referring to Gerry Rafferty (1947-2011). So, how and when did I first encounter this brilliant musician?

It was late 1978. I was living in Costa Rica, and had just returned from home leave in the UK. During that leave, my brother-in-law Derek recorded a tape for me, Rafferty’s City to City (his second solo album) released earlier that year. However, I didn’t have a tape deck because we’d had a burglary during our home leave, and my hi-fi had been stolen.

Discovering City to City had to wait until a few weeks later when I was in San José (the capital city) to take delivery of a new car, and have a stereo system installed, including a tape deck.

Ready for the return journey to Turrialba where we lived (about 70 km east of San José, and at least a couple of hours on the road) I eagerly anticipated listening to City to City, and was instantly enthralled by the first track, The Ark, enjoying the blend throughout the album of folk and soft rock. The Ark has remained a favorite of mine all these years.

But ask anyone to name any Gerry Rafferty song, and I’m pretty sure that Baker Street (with its iconic saxophone riff [1] by Raphael Ravenscroft) would be top of their list. It quickly rose in the charts. Rafferty always surrounded himself with so many accomplished musicians.

The title track from the album is pretty damn good as well, inspired by Rafferty’s long-distance commuting apparently.

The fifth track on City to City is particularly poignant. My late elder brother Ed (who lived in Canada) was also a Gerry Rafferty fan. When his wife Linda passed away after a battle with cancer in 2007, Ed chose Stealin’ Time as one of the pieces of music played at her funeral. A poignant tribute to a lovely lady.

A year after City to City, Rafferty released Night Owl in 1979. The title track is my favorite with Already Gone coming a close second.

So, what about all the other wonderful music that I’d not been exposed to? Well, working through that first Spotify playlist of so many great songs, two in particular caught my ear. The first, Don’t Give Up On Me was the seventh track on his seventh studio album, On a Wing & a Prayer released in 1992.

And the other, which I believe is one of Rafferty’s finest (and ‘undiscovered’) songs is Tired of Talking, released as the third track on his sixth studio album, North and South, in 1988.

This track, Don’t Speak of My Heart, is the third track from Rafferty’s tenth and final album, Life Goes On, released in November 2009. An alcoholic for much of his life, Rafferty died of liver failure in January 2011. Taken too soon, at just 63.

For an even greater appreciation of the genius of Gerry Rafferty, watch this hour long documentary broadcast by BBC Scotland in 2011. Maybe even shed a tear . . .


[1] The saxophone break on “Baker Street” has been described as “the most famous saxophone solo of all time”, “the most recognizable sax riff in pop music history”, and “one of the most recognisable saxophone solos of all time”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Getting the message out about genetic resources

For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.

I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.

Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.


I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.

So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.

The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.

Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.

I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.


Brinkburn: a medieval priory on the banks of the River Coquet in Northumberland

Brinkburn Priory, an early 12th century Augustinian ‘transitional’ priory (architecturally between Norman and Gothic), nestles in a deep bend of the River Coquet in central Northumberland. All that remains today is the priory church, which was restored in the 19th century with the completion of a new roof, and installation of beautiful stained glass windows.

The site is owned and managed by English Heritage.

The free car park is located about 400 m from the priory itself, but from experience I can say just how enjoyable that stroll was, high above the fast-flowing Coquet, the trees, shrubs and understorey plants coming into flower, and a multitude of birds singing all around, trying to out-compete one another.

Brinkburn was dissolved in 1536. It was considered a ‘Lesser Monastery’ with a value of only £69, so was spared the fate of most monasteries. The church continued to be used until the late 16th century when it fell into disrepair and the roof collapsed. A manor house was built alongside the priory church in the late 16th century, incorporating parts of the other monastery buildings that had been destroyed. This manor house was refurbished by the Cadogan family who also undertook the restoration of the priory church from 1858. It took just a year to replace the roof, and the windows were installed by 1864.

Just click on the image below to open the album of the photos I took during our visit yesterday.

Access to the manor house is limited to just the ground floor and basement, where the ancient stonework from the former priory buildings is exposed, and how the undercroft from the old monastery was used as a foundation for the house.

As we sat on a bench, eating a picnic lunch and facing the west end of the priory church, I couldn’t help reflecting on the other ruined monasteries and the like that we have visited over the years: Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey, Mount Grace Priory, Lilleshall Abbey, Wenlock Priory, White Ladies Priory, and Hailes Abbey. And they all have one thing in common. The monks knew how to choose just the right location to build their communities. Such peaceful places to think, take pause. The bench we sat on was dedicated to the memory of a couple who had visited Brinkburn frequently, simply because they found it such a peaceful place. I know how they felt, sitting there beside the church and the babbling River Coquet.


 

Every table tells a tale . . .

After my mother went into a care home in 1990, my eldest brother Martin, my sister Margaret, and I were faced with the task of vacating her rented bungalow, and deciding what furniture to keep and what to dispose of.

I took two pieces of furniture that I can remember from my childhood in Congleton, and I’m 72: one was my father’s Art Deco tallboy; and the other, a half moon table, the end section of a long dining table. I still have both.

The table graced our hall in Bromsgrove for many years. It now proudly sits in the bow window of our new home in Newcastle. It’s a little bit battered perhaps, the veneer and polish has come away in a few places, but still it retains a certain majesty.

I can’t state unequivocally where the table originated. But family tradition has it that the table was once the end section of a dining table on board one of the Cunard-White Star Line ocean liners. But which one?

As ship’s photographer, my father Fred Jackson spent a number of years on board two ships: the four-funneled RMS Aquitania and the RMS Carinthia. In the memoir [1] that Dad completed just a week or so before he passed away in April 1980, he mentioned his affection for the Aquitania:

Of all the ships that I was called to serve on, without doubt the Aquitania was the one that I held dearest in my affections, especially as one event in that first summer of 1934 was to shape the remainder of my life in no uncertain way. The “Aqui”, with the exception of two short breaks, was to be my floating home and the source of my livelihood for the next four years . . . 

Dad made 98 crossings of the North Atlantic between Southampton and New York. The 1930s were the heyday of ocean travel, and countries vied with each other to provide the most comfortable, luxurious, and fastest crossings. The Aquitania was, until the launch of RMS Queen Mary [2] in 1934 and entering into service two years later, the largest of the Cunard-White Star liners on this route.

How exactly my parents took possession of the table in the first place I have no idea. Did it come from the Aquitania after she was scrapped in 1950? Perhaps, given my Dad’s affinity for the ship. But as I was researching this story earlier today, an idea popped up in my mind. The table didn’t come from the Aquitania after all, but the RMS Majestic [3]. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I have an idea that this was the ship that my mother once mentioned to me.

In some respects it really doesn’t matter. The table is a symbol of era gone by, and part of the story of how my parents first met.

So let’s go back to that summer of 1934 and Dad’s early voyages on the Aquitania. On one return crossing from New York to Southampton, three young women asked Dad to take their photograph. One of them, Lily May Healy (on the left; she was always known as ‘Lilian’), just 26, had trained as a nurse in Newark, New Jersey and was returning to England to visit her parents.

Docking in Southampton, Dad took a photo of Lilian with her parents, Martin and Ellen Healy who came on board. Dad also managed to get Lilian’s contact details in the US so that he might look her up the next time he was in New York once she had returned from holiday.

Dad proposed to Lilian in Newark, and they returned together in 1936 on the Aquitania, and were married in Epsom in November that year.

Before leaving New York, Mum and Dad visited the SS Normandie, the pride of France, launched in 1935 and replacing the Aquitania as the largest and fastest ocean liner.

Purchasing her return passage at the Cunard office in New York, Mum’s ticket was upgraded to a single cabin on Deck ‘C’. And from the photos that Dad took during that voyage, it looks as though she thoroughly enjoyed herself.

Here’s a photo of Mum and Dad sitting together, second row, second and third from the right.

I have another photo of Mum alongside my Dad’s parents, Tom and Alice Jackson. Obviously taken on board ship, presumably the Aquitania after docking in Southampton, I wonder if my  grandparents had traveled to Southampton especially to meet and welcome their future daughter-in-law.

It’s remarkable what memories just one piece of furniture can awake. And each day as I see that table, I also think what it could tell us if only it could speak. The 1930s were certainly an opulent time on the high seas.

It was decade when celebrities traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, and Dad had a remarkable set of photos of Hollywood stars that you can see in this post. His favorite was Bette Davis, who signed the photo he took.

And on one last note, here is a remarkable, perhaps unique photo. From the caption that my Dad has written, here are passengers on the RMS Aquitania listening to a radio broadcast while at sea of the launch of the RMS Queen Mary on 26 September 1934.


[1] Fred Jackson, 1980. Gathering No Moss.

[2] I wrote about the last voyage of the Queen Mary from Southampton in this post.

[3] RMS Majestic had been built and launched (in 1914) in Germany as the SS Bismarck. After World War I, she was handed over to the allies as war reparations and renamed Majestic. She sailed just once under the German flag during sea trials in 1922.

Nothing comes for free . . .

Ask almost any scientist, and the one thing they (mostly) have in common is their dislike (I could put it stronger) of having to write reports or to be held to deadlines.

Many would prefer never to be reminded they have reporting commitments, and just bury their heads in the academic sand. Just yesterday, I came across a twitter thread started by an academic deploring the lack of support from her institute in terms of reporting and, for her, making the whole process unacceptably complicated.

Reports come in many guises: progress reports to supervisors or project leaders, to their institutions, and perhaps most importantly, to the body that provided funds for their research project.

So having labored for hours, days, weeks or longer to prepare a proposal for submission to a funding body, and having that agonizing wait until the project is actually approved for funding, research scientists then have to prepare reports periodically on progress, and how the funding has actually been spent. Nevertheless, it’s important that scientists appreciate that they do have a responsibility, commitment even, to account for their projects and funding, even though many see this as an unacceptable chore taking them away from valuable research time and writing scientific papers, rather than just another component of the project implementation.

Now, if you work for one of the international agricultural research institute sponsored by the CGIAR [1], like I did for about 27 years in South and Central America (on potatoes at the International Potato Center or CIP) and in the Philippines (on rice at the International Rice Research Institute or IRRI), report writing came with the territory, so to speak. But the demands for reports have changed over the decades since I first became involved in 1973.

Back in the day, there were no electronic communications to permit instantaneous delivery of research reports. For example, when I worked for CIP in Costa Rica from 1976 to 1980, I had to submit quarterly reports to headquarters in Lima. These were sent in the mail, taking two to three weeks to reach their destination. That was accepted practice.

Not today, however. Some donors have become increasingly dysfunctional, with constant demands for information. Now! Because reports can be submitted as email attachments, requests are often posted at the last minute, without ever appreciating that to provide the necessary information might take hours, even days, to compile.

That’s not to say that responding to such requests with some urgency is unnecessary. But to compile and analyse information into a coherent report takes time. And for many scientists, time is of the essence.


When it comes to international agricultural research, the ultimate donors are tax payers, and governments have to satisfy that their investment is used appropriately and, more importantly, delivers the expected outcomes. I’ve written about those aspects in another blog post a few years back.

And, in the case of the CGIAR centers, that means having a positive impact of the welfare and livelihoods of farming families around the world, and those who depend on their agricultural productivity to survive, especially urban populations in cities and mega-cities who do not produce their own food. Take the case of rice, for example. Half the world’s population—several billion people—eats rice at least once a day, over a million tons a day worldwide, maybe more. That’s . And rice farmers must maintain their productivity, increase it even, if the demand for this staple crop is met. So it’s important to use the diversity in genebank collections to breed new varieties, or to fight pests and diseases. Then again, supply constraints must be understood if farmers are to be empowered to sell their rice, or what prevents women farmers in particular from improving their livelihoods.


In 2001, I gave up day-to-day science to join IRRI’s senior management team, as Director for Program Planning and Communications with the brief (and mandate) to beef up the institute’s management of its many research projects, to liaise with its donor community, and increase donor support for IRRI’s overall research agenda. It would be no exaggeration to state that when we set up the Program Planning and Communications office, IRRI’s relations with its donor had almost hit rock bottom.

The PPC Team on my last day at IRRI on 30 April 2010. L-R: Eric Clutario, Zeny Federico, Corinta Guerta, me, Vel Hernandez-Ilao, Yeyet Enriquez.

For one thing, senior management had no clear picture of how many research projects were currently being funded, nor what commitments had been made to the respective donors. Indeed, things were so bad that some donors had threatened to pause existing funding support and not even consider new initiatives until the institute got its house in order.

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to sort this deplorable situation and do whatever necessary to retrieve our standing with the donors. I can’t say that my efforts were universally welcomed by my colleagues at the outset. They had grown accustomed to not being held to account. But eventually they came to appreciate the value of having a support office like PPC.

First things first. It took a week to come up with a first but incomplete list of all donor-funded projects. The next step was to make sure we could identify each one uniquely. And like assigning an accession number to a sample of germplasm in a genebank, each project was given its own identity (DPPC-year-number), notwithstanding that each donor might also have assigned an ID according to their own project management. Even at the project concept stage, we assigned a DPPC number that remained with the project funded or not. We never re-assigned a DPPC number to another project. Eventually, as we built our project management system, we linked all the projects with the institute’s finance systems. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Whereas IRRI was probably behind in its reporting on more than 75% of its projects when I set up the Program Planning & Communications Office in May 2001, we had recovered to less than 10% six months later. And, having worked with the donors by explaining what we were doing, they were very supportive. However, having made good progress in terms of improvement our relationship with donors, there were always a couple of prima donnas at IRRI who wouldn’t play ball, didn’t feel that any project management regime was their concern, and despite our best efforts rarely complied on time with requests for information and reporting. To the overall detriment of the institute, it has to be said. Having these scientists write a report was akin to getting blood from a stone.

Once we had a handle on the scope of IRRI’s projects, we set about establishing some standard operating procedures (SOP) to develop project ideas, to submit projects to donors, and to provide IRRI’s scientists with the appropriate support to meet donor expectations. We set up reporting schedules for each project, so that no scientist could claim they hadn’t realized a report was due, assisted scientists to finalize their reports in terms of donor formats, and editing, submitting reports on behalf of the institute and taking care of any follow up. One of the complexities we had to face were the different reporting formats and requirements that each donor adopted. But with support from my colleague Gene Hettel and his team (especially science editor Bill Hardy) in Communication and Publications Services (CPS) we always submitted quality reports easily recognizable as coming from IRRI.

The CPS Team in 2008. Gene Hettel (head of CPS) is second from the left, front row. Bill Hardy (scientific editor) is kneeling (right behind Gene), to my right.

Reporting became just another component of any successfully-managed project, not an undesirable add-on seen by scientists as an imposition on their freedom and time. But the type of reports needed by donors were not the same as writing a scientific paper for example, and we had to unlearn many scientists from their usual publication habits. Donors are interested in progress and need sufficient technical information to establish scientific credibility. They don’t want to be swamped by technical jargon that too many scientists rely on. The information needed to be accessible to a non-technical readership, and that’s how the PPC team helped out, supported by our CPS colleagues.

Donors do not like surprises, so I ensured that my office maintained good communications with the many donor offices around the world, by email, by telephone, and making personal visits at least once a year. Establishing that personal relationship with my donor counterparts was an important aspect of my job as Director for Program Planning & Communications. If a project encountered a problem, or we expected a report to be delayed, or anticipated a project overrun, we talked with our donors from the outset, not leaving things until after the fact, so to speak.

Project implementation and management is a two way affair. Once made, donors should honor their commitments. And one donor, the UK government, has palpably failed in this respect regarding overseas aid (from which the CGIAR centers are funded), reducing its statutory commitment of 0.7% of gross national income (or GNI) to 0.5% for the foreseeable future, in response to the financial crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK gave its support through the Department for International Development (DFID) that has now merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to form the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Overseas aid no longer has its own profile, much to the detriment of the program, and because of the reduction in aid commitment, a significant number of projects worldwide (not just CGIAR) that relied on British aid have been cut and even staff made redundant. This is an appalling situation, and although I don’t have to hand how this aid commitment has affected the CGIAR centers, I’m sure there will be a negative budgetary consequence.

So, while the donors require (demand even) accountability for the funds they allocate, I believe it is equally important that donors like the British government maintain their financial commitments, and behave responsibly.


[1] CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources.

Riding the Metro to the sixteenth century and beyond

I love train journeys. Long or short. It makes no difference. I’d travel everywhere by train if it were possible, convenient, and affordable.

And a couple of days ago, after seven months here in the northeast of England (on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in North Tyneside), Steph and I took our first ride on the region’s Metro. Destination: Tynemouth, just six stations and 12 minutes from our nearest station, Northumberland Park.

We had delayed taking the Metro until Covid-19 travel restrictions had been eased, infection rates had started to decline steeply, and both of us had been vaccinated. It’s now been almost three weeks since we both received our second vaccine doses: Pfizer for me, AstraZeneca for Steph.

Earlier last week we upgraded our concessionary travel passes (CTP) to Gold Cards. With our CTP, we have unlimited free travel on buses nationwide, one of the benefits of being a senior citizen. For an extra £12 fee, we purchased unlimited travel on the Metro that we can use everyday, but only after 09:30 on weekdays. Here’s my CTP. Somehow my image was squashed; the original I submitted with my online application was fine.

The Tyne & Wear Metro (a publicly-owned transport system) serves five metropolitan boroughs: Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside on the north bank of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, South Tyneside, and Sunderland, on the south side, which together make up the former Tyne & Wear metropolitan county. The first stretches of the network opened in 1980, and today comprises the Green and Yellow Lines. In all there are 60 stations along almost 50 miles of track.

Parts of the network utilize former 19th century railway lines, one of the oldest parts being the former Newcastle and North Shields Railway. In recent decades, new Metro lines have been added or extended, taking the network as far west as Newcastle Airport. The system has overhead electrification throughout. The rolling stock is, however, showing its age, and breakdowns are not infrequent. The Metro is currently undergoing a major upgrade and new rolling stock are expected to be introduced over the next couple of years.

Train to Tynemouth approaching Northumberland Park station.

Train departing Northumberland Park towards Shiremoor, the next station down the line, and on to Tynemouth, eventually leading back into Newcastle city center.

Several of the stations are the original ones built for the former rail companies. Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, and Tynemouth are particularly outstanding: beautiful red brick buildings, with glass roofs to the platform edges. Tynemouth is a striking example, and has lost none of its Victorian charm.

Northumberland Park is one of the newest stations, opened in 2005 to serve the recent housing developments nearby on reclaimed mining land, and the Cobalt Business Park just a mile or so to the south (largely vacant at the moment due to office closures during the pandemic).In this video, we are approaching Tynemouth station.


So, why did we head to Tynemouth as our first Metro destination? We’ve been there several times before when visiting Philippa and family over the years.

This time, however, we had a particular Tynemouth destination in sight: Tynemouth Priory and Castle, owned and operated by English Heritage.

This was a Benedictine priory, which the same fate as countless others under the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII between 1539.

The priory (and its fortifications) were built on the headland of Pen Bal Crag, that juts out into the North Sea opposite the end of Tynemouth Front Street.

From the grounds of the priory and castle there are excellent views of St Edward’s Bay to Sharpness Point to the north, and overlooking Short Sands beach.

To the south, the coast stretches past South Shields, overlooking the north and south piers of the entrance to the River Tyne.

While we were having our picnic lunch overlooking the Tyne, a large transporter ship entered the river, making its way west upriver to dock of the port of Newcastle. This was once a very busy port, exporting coal worldwide. And it was a major ship-building location, sadly now disappeared. Although it was a bright sunny day with little breeze, I was surprised at how rough the sea was outside the north pier. As we approached the cliff edge we could hear the booming of the waves as they crashed against the pier. On the other hand, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. For the past few days we’ve had brisk northeasterly winds, with a long fetch down the North Sea from the Arctic.

Just inland from the mouth of the River Tyne, is a huge statue (facing south) of Vice Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood (a Newcastle native) who was second-in-command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.


Humans have occupied Pen Bal Crag for at least two millennia, with remains of Iron Age roundhouses discovered on the site. The earliest priory itself dates from the 7th century, but the ruins standing today date from the 13th century. There is a nice summary of Tynemouth Priory’s history on the English Heritage website.

Today the ruins are a stark reminder of how majestic Tyneside Priory must have been in its heyday. Standing on this peninsula, looking out to sea, the priory reminds me of Whitby Abbey (another site carefully managed by English Heritage on the North Yorkshire coast).

The entrance to the priory passes through the gatehouse of the castle, and opens up on to a broad grassy area, overlooking the coast, and encompassing the ruins, a cemetery of mainly 18th and 19th century graves, many incredibly weathered sandstone, and an abandoned coastguard station. There are also World War One and Two naval gun fortifications facing out to sea.

A couple of things struck me as we walked around the ruins. Again, how the monks chose such inspiring locations to build their monasteries. And second, what a beautiful sandstone they used for Tynemouth Priory and its castle fortifications. It glowed a deep golden brown in the strong May sunshine.

After the Dissolution, the site was occupied for centuries by the military and, as I mentioned earlier, artillery installations from two world wars dominate the cliffs overlooking the entrance to the River Tyne.

There has also been one further addition—a bit of a blot on the landscape—especially as it has been abandoned for 20 years. In 1980, a new coastguard station was constructed alongside the priory ruins. Following a restructuring of the coastguard service in 2001, the station was closed and stands there today, a white elephant staring out to sea. Rather incongruous, given the serenity of the priory ruins close by.

Our visit to Tynemouth Priory was certainly one of our most convenient English Heritage or National Trust visits. Having enjoyed our picnic, we made our way back to the station for the short journey home. We’d walked almost four miles, and enjoyed the sea breezes. No wonder I felt tired after we arrived home. It didn’t take long before I dozed off in my armchair.


 

Walking with my mobile – northeast (1)

During 2019, I started a series of posts, Walking with my mobile, in which I described some of the walks that I used to take around my hometown of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, just south of Birmingham.

At the end of September last year we moved from Bromsgrove to the northeast of England, a few miles east of Newcastle upon Tyne city center. And over the past seven months I have been exploring many different walks close to where we live in North Tyneside, and a little further east on the awesome coast, just over 10 minutes drive away at Seaton Sluice, over the county line in Northumberland. Close by also stands Seaton Delaval Hall, the closest National Trust property to home.

I already described some of the places we’ve been to in a post last November. But now I want to document in some more detail the walks that have become part of my (almost) daily routine.


Having never lived near the coast (Steph grew up in Southend on Sea in Essex and the beach was just a five minute walk from the family home), it’s a never-ending delight for me to jump in the car and know that within a short space of time, I’ll be walking along the wide open spaces of a Northumberland beach, and breathing in all that wonderful clean sea air. Even though it can be quite challenging when there’s a stiff northeast breeze coming down from the Arctic.

Last Sunday morning, being a bright sunny day (but with gales and heavy rain in the forecast over the next couple of days or so), we headed to Seaton Sluice. For walks along the beach here, there are three parking options. Close to the harbor in Seaton Sluice itself there’s a car park (and toilet block) that probably takes around 80 vehicles at most. Given its location, you have to be an early bird to secure a parking space here. We didn’t leave home until after 11 am.

Further north along the A193 towards Blyth is a second car park, the Seaton Sluice Beach car park. It’s enormous, stretching probably more than a quarter of a mile north and south of the entrance, where there’s also a disused toilet block. This is where we parked to begin our short walk of just over two miles.

And on the southern edge of Blyth itself, behind Blyth beach, the beach huts, and the remains of the Blyth Battery (see more below), is another car park that we have yet to use.

The car parks lie behind sand dunes that stretch from Seaton Sluice to Blyth beach. Criss-crossed by many paths there are some main ones for easy access to the beach itself, and for equestrians who we see galloping along the beach from time to time.

And what a glorious view opens up as you emerge from the dunes: Seaton Sluice harbor and headland to the south, and Blyth beach and port to the north.

Immediately offshore, and about half a mile from the beach, is a small five-turbine demonstrator wind farm, operated by the French multinational EDF.

Heading along the beach, we always find it easier to make our way closer to the breaking waves, where the sand is usually firmer. Walking on the soft sand through the dunes and at the top of the beach is such hard work.

Further north along the beach and turning to look south, St Mary’s Lighthouse close to Whitley Bay comes into view, and beyond that, the entrance to the River Tyne at Tynemouth. That’s not actually visible from Seaton Sluice beach, but often there are large ships anchored just offshore waiting for the tide to enable them to enter the river and head upstream. As you can see from the image below, Seaton Sluice beach is also very popular with dog walkers.

About half way between Seaton Sluice car park and Blyth beach a stream flows on to the beach from under the dunes, necessitating a change of direction to join the paved path, known as the Eve Black Way [1] which connects Seaton Sluice and Blyth. It’s either get your feet wet, or find another route.

Joining the Eve Black Way we continued north until we reached the south end of Blyth beach, and stopped for a few minutes to examine the replica battery guns [2] that were unveiled in April 2019, as well as enjoy the view south.

Along the path, about halfway between Blyth and our car park, there’s an interesting sculpture, in wood, dedicated to cycling (the Eve Black Way carries part of the National Cycle Network route 1—Coast and Castles route—that is also part of the European Cycle Network North Sea route.

Then, another ten minutes and we were back at the car park.

Happy days!


Along the beach itself, we haven’t seen too much bird life, just the normal herring and black-headed gulls, the occasional sanderling running along the water’s edge. Around Seaton Sluice itself we have seen turnstones, oystercatchers, and redshanks as well, and small flocks of common eiders (or cuddy ducks, named after St Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumberland) bobbing on the waves just offshore. At this time of the year, the dunes are busy with birds: meadow pipits, linnets, and warblers of various species (I’m not very good at identifying small olive brown birds). We’ve seen the odd kestrel hovering above the dunes, hunting its prey of small mammals.

But one of the most spectacular wildlife displays came a few months back in the depths of winter. We’d taken much the same walk, but when we arrived back at the car park, there was a flock of perhaps 150 pink-footed geese grazing in a field across the A193, interspersed with perhaps as many as 50 curlew. What a sight!

However, we enjoyed one of the most memorable sights on our first walk at Seaton Sluice last October, about a week after we had moved north. A couple walking along the beach drew our attention to it: a lone grey seal, constantly diving and returning to the surface over a period of about 15 minutes, hunting for its breakfast.

Given the proximity of Seaton Sluice beach to home (as well as the cliff walk to St Mary’s Lighthouse, as well as Whitley Bay beach itself), I’m sure that this walk will continue to be one of the most frequent we make. After all, within about two minutes from home we can see the sea.


[1] Evelyn Ann Black was a much-loved Labour Councillor and Mayor of Blyth Valley in 1980-81. She died in 2006. In 2007, the path between Blyth and Seaton Sluice was renamed the Eve Black Coastal Walkway.

[2] The guns are replica Mark VII 6″naval guns virtually the same as would have been there during World War Two. They were 23′ long and had a range of 7 miles.


 

Almost as rare as hen’s teeth . . .

For about a two week period each Spring, around the end of April, The Alnwick Garden comes alive with an abundance of Japanese cherry blossoms, just as the rest of the garden is beginning to emerge from its winter slumber. We made a return visit there last Thursday only a week after we had been there, which I wrote about at the time. We noted then that the orchard was about to bloom, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see this wonder of Nature.

In 2008, this orchard of more than 320 great white cherry trees (Prunus ‘Taihaku’) was planted in the east-southeast section of the garden. Now 20 feet tall or more, words are insufficient to describe the wonder of this cherry orchard in full bloom.

The orchard is touted as the largest in the world of ‘Taihaku’ cherries. And this particular variety has an interesting history linking Japan, an Englishman, and a Sussex garden.

Cherry trees are central to Japanese culture, but tastes in different varieties have changed over the centuries. ‘Taihaku’ cherries apparently went extinct in Japan in the late 19th century. Move on a few decades, and up steps a very interesting Englishman, Captain Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981) who, after an early career interest in ornithology, became one of the world’s authorities on cherries. Indeed he was often referred to as ‘Cherry’ Ingram, a colossus, introducing many different Prunus species and varieties to the UK.

And it was through his passion for cherries that, in the 1920s, he came across a single, rather decrepit tree of Prunus ‘Taihaku’ in a Sussex garden. He successfully took cuttings, returning some to Japan. The trees at Alnwick (and indeed all ‘Taihaku’ trees worldwide) derive from that single Sussex tree.

In 2016, Japanese author Naoko Abe published an account about Ingram’s contribution to the survival of Japanese cherries. Here is a 2019 review of that book published by the Irish Garden Plant Society.

Abe herself also wrote an article for the Literary Hub, which is well worth the time to delve into. It gives some interesting background about Japanese cherry culture, why varieties became extinct, and of course, how Ingram turned this situation around.


Since all ‘Taihaku’ trees are derived from a single individual following vegetative propagation, there is zero genetic diversity worldwide for this variety. It’s an extreme example of genetic vulnerability, but that’s not a situation unique to Prunus ‘Taihaku’. The danger is that a pest or disease may emerge to which the trees have limited or no resistance, and there are no opportunities for selection of genetically-different individuals that might withstand such challenges.

Another example is the potato in Ireland. During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s which decimated the Irish population, potato crops (predominantly of the variety ‘Irish Lumper’ or ‘Lumper’) were wiped out by the late bight pathogen Phytophthora infestans, all plants equally susceptible to the disease. Unfortunately there are too many examples of crops with a narrow genetic base that are under threat.

Let’s look at the situation in rice, a crop I am familiar with. It’s the world’s most important staple crop, providing sustenance daily (and indeed often several times a day) to half the world’s population. Since time immemorial farmers have cultivated tens of thousands of varieties. But over the past half century, new varieties such as IR36 and IR72 (from the breeding program at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, in the Philippines where I worked from 1991-2010) have been adopted across across millions of hectares in Asia, replacing many of those farmer varieties, and effectively becoming genetic monocultures.

In the world of genetic resources conservation, which was the focus of much of my professional life over many decades, scientists are continually concerned about losing different varieties, and genetic diversity overall. However, this loss of diversity, or genetic erosion as it’s known, has been occurring forever, as farmers swap varieties and adopt new ones, the sorts of choices that farmers make all the time. There’s nothing strange or concerning about that as such.

Let me elaborate with an example from the Philippines. In the mid-1990s, a major typhoon swept across the north of the main island of Luzon, destroying in its path much of the local rice agriculture. Since we had been carrying out fieldwork in that region prior to the typhoon and, with permission from the farmers, taken small samples of their varieties for genetic analysis, we were able (after seed increase at IRRI) to return to farmers the varieties they had been growing before the catastrophe. Some willingly took them back. Others decided that this was an opportunity to make changes to their farming systems and adopt new varieties. But that was their choice, not ours (Pham et al., 2002).

Varieties may be lost, but is the actual genetic diversity itself totally lost? We have some evidence from rice (Ford-Lloyd et al., 2008) that’s not the case:

. . . where germplasm and genetic data have been collected throughout South and Southeast Asia over many decades, contrary to popular opinion, we have been unable to detect a significant reduction of available genetic diversity in our study material. This absence of a decline may be viewed positively; over the 33-year timescale of our study, genetic diversity amongst landraces grown in traditional agricultural systems was still sufficiently abundant to be collected for ex situ conservation.

However, the authors go on to raise concerns about future threats to diversity caused by climate changes or different agricultural practices. While landrace varieties are grown they can continue to adapt to environmental changes.

Overall, however, with thousands of different varieties of rice (and a multitude of other crops and their wild relatives) safely conserved in genebanks around the world, genetic diversity has not been lost. It’s available to dip into by breeders who incorporate traits from the landraces into new varieties (just look at the example of IR72 below that has 22 landrace varieties and one wild species in its pedigree), or as we showed in the Philippines example above, returned to farmers so they can continue to benefit in different ways from these old varieties.

Just recently I’ve been involved in an online discussion among old friends and colleagues about the loss of genetic diversity over the decades, and how much has actually been lost. As Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in our 1986 introduction to genetic conservation:

Hard facts relating to genetic erosion are not easy to come by; what has been lost already can no longer be accounted. One therefore has to resort mainly to personal impressions and subjective accounts.

What is important is that over the past half century, efforts have been stepped up to safely conserve old varieties and wild species in a network of genebanks across the globe. And, in recent years, that effort has been backstopped financially and technically by the Crop Trust with grants in perpetuity to major world genebanks (such as those managed by eleven CGIAR centers) and the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the permafrost high above the Arctic Circle.

However, even as these initiatives gain traction and deliver on their promises, we cannot remain complacent. Situations such as the ‘Taihaku’ cherry will continue to emerge (although perhaps not so extreme), and crops, wild species—and rare breed animals—will remain under threat. With habitat loss, and the threat of climate change that is gaining pace, never has genetic conservation (and use) been so important. ‘Taihaku’ can teach us a lesson if we take our eye off the ball.


 

Step inside the world’s most dangerous garden . . .

Northumberland, England’s northernmost and sixth largest county, is majestic, with its rolling hills to the north, the wild moorlands in the west, and its east-facing, awe-inspiring beaches along the North Sea coast.

And, in the heart of the county about 35 miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne (where Steph and I have been living since October last year) there is a jewel of a garden, in the small market town of Alnwick (pronounced ‘Annick’), just now waking from its winter slumber.

This is The Alnwick Garden, the inspiration since 1996 of Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland (wife of the 12th Duke). Located on the estate of Alnwick Castle, home to the Dukes of Northumberland, there has been a garden here since 1750, created by the 1st Duke of Northumberland with the help of renowned landscaper, Capability Brown (who himself hailed from this county).

Today, the garden attracts visitors in their droves, and last Thursday, Steph and I made our second visit there, having first visited with our younger daughter Philippa in July 2005 when we were back in the UK on home leave from the Philippines.

But this time we returned as Friends of the Garden, with a dual membership given to us by family as a Christmas gift last December.

It’s not a large garden. Just 12 acres (4.9 ha), but is attractively sub-divided into a series of small gardens, garden rooms.

However, the central feature, without doubt, is the fabulous Grand Cascade with 120 water jets. There’s something magical about the sound of running water in a garden, and at Alnwick, you’re almost never out of hearing of running water, from the Cascade, from brightly shining steel sculptures, or runnels trickling down the slopes.

At the top of the Cascade is the entrance to the Ornamental Garden, formally laid out with miniature box hedges, taller yew hedges, as well as pleached trees. During this recent visit, there were plenty of tulips in flower in the borders, but most other plants were only just beginning to emerge. And among these were the delphiniums that will be a feature attraction later in the summer, just as they were when we visited in 2005.

So why did I say this was the world’s most dangerous garden? Just to one side of the Cascade is the entrance to the Poison Garden, a collection of 100 toxic, intoxicating, and narcotic plants . . . Visitors are strictly prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any plants, although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes while walking in the garden.

On the opposite side of the Cascade is the Serpent Garden with a number of steel and water sculptures. Very tactile.

And beyond that a bamboo grove, as well as the Rose Garden. The latter had not been planted in 2005 as far as I recall. In a bower on the edge of the Rose Garden is an impressive sculpture, made of lead that originally graced Syon House, the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland. It was apparently given to the then Duke in the late 18th century. Apparently the fox atop the sculpture (or urn?) indicates that the owner came from the landed gentry and had land on which they could hunt. The four faces represent the seasons, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. And the monkeys? Well, it seems these indicate that the family was wealthy enough to travel extensively and had seen monkeys in the wild.

As Friends of the Garden we can return at any time, subject to confirmed tickets through the current online booking system. And we must return soon, to view the Japanese cherry orchard of 329 trees, the largest collection of Taihaku in the world. The flower buds were about to break last week.

I’m sure I will be updating this post, or writing new ones during the year of our membership of this wonderful garden.


Here’s a link to an album of photos from both visits.

Never get lost: numbers or just three words?

I seem to have stirred up a bit of a geospatial controversy among family members. Nothing too serious, I hasten to add. Just a question of numbers or words. It’s all about finding your place in this world. Literally!

For as long as humans have been exploring this glorious world of ours, they have been drawing maps of one sort or another to enable others to travel safely and understand better the relationship and location of natural and man-made features in the landscape.

This Babylonian world map, known as the Imago Mundi, is (so I’m led to believe) the earliest known map, over 2600 years old.

This quotation, from film maker Peter Greenaway, perfectly sums up my decades-long interest in maps: ‘I’ve always been fascinated by maps and cartography. A map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going — in a sense it’s three tenses in one.’

And it never ceases to amaze me just how early on map makers were producing realistic maps of the world, centuries before satellite and space imagery showed us the world in the round. Here’s a map of the world, engraved in 1595 by the son of Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594)—the man who (according to Nicholas Crane) mapped the planet.

The 18th century was an era when expeditions, many commissioned by the British Admiralty, were sent all over the world to explore and map distant lands.

As a small boy, I used to spend hours pouring over maps, especially the map of South America. It then became my ambition to visit that enigmatic continent one day. An ambition fulfilled in the 1970s.

Maps have also been an important part of my work as a research botanist. I’ve had a special interest in the geographical variation displayed by plant species, visualizing the data on maps to better understand how variation patterns correlate with geography and ecology.

The two maps below are taken from a paper by a graduate student of mine, Javier Francisco-Ortega, who undertook a study of an endemic legume species, Chamaecytisus proliferus (commonly known as tagasaste or escobon) from his native Canary Islands. Using these hand-drawn maps, based on actual Global Positioning System (GPS) location data recorded in the field, and adding symbols to represent slightly different morphologies, Javier was able to characterize how the species varied according to ecology across the archipelago, and published his findings in this paper.

Even this was a leap forward from when I completed my PhD in 1975. I had studied a particular type of potato from Peru and had collected some of these myself during three collecting missions in 1973 and 1974. Others I had selected from the large collection of native varieties that were being carefully conserved at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. There was no GPS in those days, and we struggled even to source accurate maps, the only ones available (with some difficulty) from the Peruvian military geographical institute (now the Instituto Geográfico Nacional). So it was sometimes difficult to accurately pinpoint where any variety had been collected, and even more so retroactively for varieties already collected. Often it was a case of describing the collection site or farmer’s field as ‘along road such and such from X to Y, W meters north of Z feature in the landscape‘.

Few countries have a mapped landscape as accurate and comprehensive as the United Kingdom, published by the Ordnance Survey that commenced its work in 1791 (although military mapping had already been ongoing for the previous four decades).

Lack of accurate geographical data bedevils the efficient collection, conservation, and use of genetic resources of crops and their wild relatives. It is not uncommon for collecting data to be wildly inaccurate. Transcribing coordinates derived from a map (where they are available) can place a collecting site miles from its actual location. Even in the middle of the ocean!

Using precise location data, a Geographical Information System (or GIS) can link all manner of information and has revolutionized just how we look at the landscape around us, to make maps that communicate, perform analysis, share information, and solve complex problems around the world.

So what was the controversy I referred to at the outset. Recently, I have been posting on Facebook a series of photographs taken at different locations around the world, and challenging those in my circle of friends to guess where. The next day I publish the location, and have taken to using location data from the what3words (or w3w) app that divides the globe into 3x3m squares and generates three random words to describe each square (taking care to screen out any ‘rude’ ones). It works in multiple languages. The reference I give represents where (approximately) I took the photo, or maybe is slap bang in the middle of the feature I’m illustrating.

Much to the exasperation of my nephew Bruce, a GIS professional, who slated w3w as ‘the bane of the geospatial community’. He had responded after I’d posted this lovely photo of the Aqueduto do Convento de Cristo – Troço Pegões Altos, in central Portugal near where his father (and my eldest brother) resides.

And giving it the w3w coordinates of:  ///mischievous.wands.reassign

Bruce  replied with these coordinates: 39.6081716, -8.4421573 (which is approximately 39º36’29.4″N 8º26’31″W, according to Google Maps).

As Bruce further commented, ‘There’s a lot of interest in What 3 Words at the moment’. But he went to tell me that he and others in his profession were sceptical about the service, particularly the claims that it could be a life saver in emergency situations. And then he explained a couple of things that I wasn’t aware of. And, I suspect, the same applies to the majority of phone users:

  • First, it’s not necessary to to install any third party apps on your phone, remember words or anything. The location is defined by the phone’s GPS, and by just going to your preferred mapping app such as Google Maps and sharing your location.
  • Second, blue light/emergency services don’t need to adopt another proprietary app at all, and it’s just causing more overheads and complications for them.

Bruce attached a link to an opinion piece about the shortcomings of w3w by GIS guru Steve Feldman in his blog. You can read it here.

Notwithstanding the actual lack of necessity for an app like w3w (I take all that on board), and the concern among GIS professionals questioning the aims of w3w, I do think it has a value. If it raises an interest in locational information, a greater awareness of the world around us among the majority who are GPS/GIS illiterate, then that’s surely a good thing. From my many decades in science research and communications, there’s one thing I have learned. And that is to make science accessible to everyone, not just those working in the field. What w3w does, in a fun way, is bring geospatial information to Joe Public.

There’s also another reason why I’ll continue to use w3w in a limited way. Given that I can hardly remember what I had for dinner last night, trying to remember or repeat a string of numbers, positive and negative location coordinates, is quite a challenge. I have a much easier time with words, and three seems quite a handy number.

So to conclude, here is a location that is a particularly significant to me: ///loose.noises.dream. Clue: 18 November 1948.


 

I never aspired to be an academic

If, in the summer of 1970, someone had told me that one day I would be teaching botany at university, I would have told them they were delusional. But that’s what happened in April 1981 when I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Hard to believe that’s already 40 years ago today. I stayed at Birmingham for a decade.

Birmingham is a campus university, one of the first, and also the first of the so-called ‘redbrick‘ universities. The campus has changed radically in the 30 years since I left, but many of the same landmarks are still there. The beauty of the campus can be appreciated in this promotional video.


I never, ever had any pretensions to a life in academia. As an undergraduate studying for a combined degree in Environmental Botany and Geography at University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970, I was a run-of-the-mill student. It wasn’t that I had little enthusiasm for my degree. Quite the contrary, for the most part. I enjoyed my three years at university, but I did burn the candle more at one end than the other. Also, I didn’t really know (or understand) how to study effectively, and no-one mentored me to become better. And it showed in my exam results. So while I graduated with a BSc (Hons.) degree, it was only a Lower Second; I just missed out, by a couple of percentage points, on an Upper or 2(i) degree. Perhaps with a little more effort I could have achieved that goal of a ‘better degree’. Que será . . .

However, about halfway through my final year at Southampton, I applied to Birmingham for a place on the recently-established graduate MSc course on Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR) in the Department of Botany. And the rest is history, so to speak.

I was interviewed in February 1970 and offered a place, but with no guarantee of funding. It wasn’t until late in the summer—about a couple of weeks before classes commenced—that the head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes phoned me to confirm my place (notwithstanding my ‘poor’ degree) and that he’d managed to squeeze a small grant from the university. It was just sufficient to pay my academic fees, and provide an allowance of around £5 per week (about £67 at today’s value) towards my living expenses.

So, in early September 1970 I found myself in Birmingham alongside four other MSc candidates, all older than me, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, excited to learn all about plant genetic resources. I discovered my study mojo, redeeming myself academically (rather well, in fact), sufficient for Jack Hawkes to take me on as one of his PhD students, even as I was expecting to move to Peru to join the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. And that’s what I did for the rest of the decade, working in South and Central America before returning to Birmingham as a member of staff.


The years before Birmingham
I spent over eight years with CIP, between January 1973 and April 1976, working as an Associate Taxonomist in Lima, and helping to manage the multitude of potato varieties in the center’s field genebank, participating in collecting trips to different parts of Peru to find new varieties not already conserved in the genebank, and continuing research towards my PhD.

In the meantime, my girlfriend Stephanie (who I met at Birmingham) and I decided to get married, and she flew out to Peru in July 1973. We were married in Lima in October [1].

In May 1975, Steph and I returned to Birmingham for six months so I could complete the residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and defend my thesis. We returned to Lima by the end of December just after I received my degree.

From April 1976 and November 1980, Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America on the campus of the regional agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba, a small town 62 km due east of the capital, San José.

I had joined CIP’s Regional Research Department to strengthen the regional program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In 1976, the regional headquarters were in Toluca, Mexico where my head of program, Oscar Hidalgo lived. After he moved to the USA for graduate studies in 1977, CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, asked me to take on the leadership of the regional program, and that’s what I did for the next four years, with an emphasis on breeding potatoes adapted to hot tropical environments, seed systems, bacterial disease resistance, and regional program development.

By November 1980 I felt it was time to move on, and requested CIP to assign me to another program. We moved back to Lima. However, with one eye on life beyond CIP, and with a growing daughter, Hannah (born in April 1978, and who would, in the next couple of years, be starting school) I also began to look for employment opportunities in the UK.


Looking for new opportunities
Towards the end of 1980 (but before we had returned to Lima) I became aware that a new lectureship was about to be advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany, my alma mater) at Birmingham. With the retirement of Jack Hawkes scheduled for September 1982, the lectureship would be recruited to fill an anticipated gap in teaching on the CUPGR Course.

I sent in an application and waited ‘patiently’ (patience is not one of my virtues) for a reply to come through. By the end of December (when we were already back in Lima, and in limbo so to speak) I was told I was on a long short list, but would only proceed to the final short list if I would confirm attending an interview in Birmingham (at my own expense) towards the end of January 1981. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and with the encouragement of the Dr Sawyer (who promised to keep a position open for me if the Birmingham application was unsuccessful) I headed to the UK.

Since completing my PhD in 1975, I had published three papers from my thesis, and a few others on potato diseases and agronomy. Not an extensive publication list by any stretch of the imagination, compared to what might be expected of faculty candidates nowadays. In reality my work at CIP hadn’t led to many scientific publication opportunities. Publications were not the be-all and end-all metric of success with the international centers back in the day. It’s what one achieved programmatically, and its impact on the lives of potato farmers that was the most important performance criterion. So, while I didn’t have a string of papers to my name, I did have lots of field and managerial experience, I’d worked with genetic resources for a number of years, and my research interests, in taxonomy and biosystematics, aligned well with the new position at Birmingham.

I interviewed successfully (eminent geneticist Professor John Jinks chairing the selection panel), and was offered the lectureship on the spot, from 1 April. The university even coughed up more than half the costs of my travel from Peru for interview. Subject to successfully passing a three-year probation period, I would then be offered tenure (tenure track as they say in North America), the holy grail of all who aspire to life in academia.


Heading to Birmingham
Saying farewell to CIP in mid-March 1981, and after more than eight happy years in South and Central America, Steph, Hannah, and I headed back to the UK via New York, where I had to close our account with Citibank on 5th Avenue.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building

This was just a couple of weeks or so before I was due to begin at Birmingham. We headed first to Steph’s parents in Southend-on-Sea. Since we had nowhere to live in Birmingham, we decided that I should move there on my own in the first instance, and start to look for a house that would suit us.

A few months before I joined Plant Biology, the department had recruited a lecturer in plant biochemistry, Dr John Dodds, a few years younger than me (I was 32 when I joined the university). John and I quickly became friends, and he offered me the second bedroom in his apartment, a short distance from the university.

The search for a house didn’t take long, and by mid-April we’d put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of the university, which was to remain our home for the next 39 years until we sold up last September. We moved in at the beginning of July, the day before I had to go away for the following two weeks as one of the staff supervising a second year undergraduate ecology field trip in Scotland. Not the most convenient of commitments under the circumstances. But that’s another story.


I start teaching
So, 40 years on, what are my reflections on the decade I spent at Birmingham?

It was midway through the 1980-81 academic year when I joined the department. I spent much of April settling in. My first office (I eventually moved office three times over the next decade) was located in the GRACE Lab (i.e., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Lab) where the CUPGR MSc students were based, in the grounds of Winterbourne House, on the edge of the main university campus, and about ten minutes walk from the department.

The GRACE Lab

The lab had been constructed around 1970 or so to house the Botanical Section of the British Antarctic Survey (before it moved to Cambridge). One other member of staff, Dr Pauline Mumford (a seed physiologist, on a temporary lectureship funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – now Bioversity International) also had her office there.

Pauline Mumford (standing, center) with the MSc Class of ’82 (my first full year at Birmingham) from (L-R) Malaysia, Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Bangladesh (x2), Portugal, and Indonesia.

By September, an office had been found for me in the main building. This was necessary since, unlike Pauline, I had teaching commitments to undergraduate students on the honours Biological Sciences degree course, as well as having undergraduate tutees to mentor and meet with on a regular basis.

As I said, I’d been recruited to take over, in the first instance, Jack Hawkes’ teaching commitments, which comprised a contribution to the second year module in plant taxonomy, and evolution of crop plants, one of the main components of the CUPGR course. There were also opportunities to develop other courses, and in due time, this is what I did.

At the end of April 1981, Jack called me into his office, handed me his taxonomy lecture notes and said ‘You’re up tomorrow morning’. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Jack lectured about ‘experimental taxonomy’, patterns of variations, breeding systems and the like, and how taxonomic classification drew on these data. Come the next day, I strode into the lecture theater with as much confidence as I could muster, and began to wax lyrical about breeding systems. About half way through, I noticed Jack quietly walk into the room, and seat himself at the back, to check on how well I was doing (or not). That was one of his mentor roles. He was gone before I’d finished, and later on he gave me some useful feedback—he’d liked what he had seen and heard.

But the lecture hadn’t nearly taken place. One of my colleagues, Dr Richard Lester, who was the lead on the taxonomy module, blithely informed me that he would be sitting in on my lecture the next day. ‘Oh no, you’re not‘ I emphatically retorted. I continued, ‘Walk in and I stop the lecture’. I had never really seen eye-to-eye with Richard ever since the day he had taught me on the MSc Course. I won’t go into detail, but let me say that we just had a prickly relationship. What particularly irked me is that Richard reported our conversation to Jack, and that’s why Jack appeared the next day.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, compared to many of my colleagues, even among those in the other three departments [2] that made up the School of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, I had no first year teaching. Besides my second year plant taxonomy lectures, I developed a small module on agroecosystems in the Second Year Common Course (of which I became chair over the course of the decade).

In their final year, students took four modules each of five weeks (plus a common evolution course). My long-time friend Brian Ford-Lloyd and I developed a module on plant genetic resources. Besides daily lectures, each student had to complete a short research project. I can’t deny that it was always a challenge to come up with appropriate projects that would yield results in such a short period. But I found working alongside these (mostly enthusiastic) students a lot of fun.

Dave Astley

Each year I’d take the group a few miles down the road to the National Vegetable Gene Bank (now the UK Vegetable Genebank) at Wellesbourne, where we’d meet its Director, Dr Dave Astley (who had completed his MSc and PhD, on potatoes with Jack Hawkes at Birmingham). It was a great opportunity for my students to understand the realities of genetic conservation.

I taught a 25 lecture course to the MSc students on crop diversity and evolution, with two practical classes each week during which students would look at as wide a range of diversity as we could grow at Winterbourne (mostly under glass). In this way, they learned about the taxonomy of the different crops, how diversity had developed, their breeding systems, and the like. The practical classes were always the most challenging element to this course. We never knew until each class just what materials would be available.

In 1982, I took a group of students to Israel for a two week course on genetic resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Not all of that year’s intake, unfortunately, as some came from countries that banned travel to Israel.

I developed a module on germplasm collecting, and in the summer months set some field exercises on a synthetic barley population comprising up to ten varieties that differed morphologically, and also matured at different times, among other traits. We would sample this population in several ways to see how each method ‘captured’ the various barleys at the known frequency of each (obviously I knew the proportions of each variety in the population).

The functioning of agroecosystems was something I’d been drawn to during my time in Costa Rica, so I passed some of that interest on to the MSc group, and helped out on some other modules like data management. And I became the Short Course Tutor for students who came to Birmingham for one or other of the two taught semesters, or both in some instances. Looking after a cohort of students from all over the world, who often had limited language skills, was both a challenge and a worthwhile endeavour. To help all of our MSc and Short Course students we worked with colleagues in the English Department who ran courses for students with English as a second language. Each member of staff would record a lecture or more, and these would be worked up into an interactive tutorial between students, ourselves, and the English staff. Once one’s lectures have been pulled apart, it’s remarkable to discover just how many idiomatic phrases one uses quite casually but which mean almost nothing to a non-native speaker.

Each MSc student had to write a dissertation, examined in September at the end of the year (just as I had on lentils in 1971), based on research completed during the summer months after sitting the written exams. Over my decade with the course, I must have supervised the dissertations of 25 students or more, working mainly on potatoes and legumes, and leading in some cases to worthwhile scientific publications. Several of these students went on to complete their PhD under my supervision often in partnership with another research institute like CIP, Rothamsted Experiment Station (now Rothamsted Research), MAFF plant pathology lab in Harpenden, and the Food Research Institute in Norwich.

2020-06-27007

With PhD students Ghani Yunus (from Malaysia) and Javier Francisco-Ortega (from Spain-Canary Islands).

The course celebrated it 20th anniversary in 1989, and among the celebrations we planted a medlar tree (sadly no longer there) in the Biological Sciences quadrangle.

Left of the tree: Professor Smallman, Jim Callow, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes. Right of the tree: Mike Jackson, Richard Lester, Mike Lawrence. And many students, of course.


Tutees
Earlier, I mentioned that at the beginning of each academic year every staff member was assigned a group of students (the annual intake then was more than 100 students, and is considerably larger today) as tutees, with whom we would meet on a regular basis. These tutorial sessions, one-on-one or in a small group, were an informal opportunity of assessing each student’s progress, to set some work, and overall to help with their well-being since for many, attending university would be the first time they were away from home, and fending for themselves. The tutorial system was not like those at the Oxbridge colleges.

Most students flourished, some struggled. Having someone with whom to share their concerns was a lifeline for some students. I always thought that my tutor responsibilities were among the most important I had as a member of staff, and ensuring my door was always open (or as open as it could be) whenever a tutee needed to contact me. Not all my colleagues viewed their tutorial responsibilities the same. And I do appreciate that, today, with so many more students arriving at university, staff have to structure their availability much more rigidly, sometimes to excess.

In October 1981, my first final year tutee was Vernonica ‘Noni’ Tong* who went on to complete a PhD with my close colleague, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence on incompatibility systems in poppies. Noni joined the Genetics Department and rose to become Professor of Plant Cell Biology (now Emeritus). Several others also went on to graduate work. Another, Julian Parkhill, graduated around 1987 or 1988, went on to Bristol for his PhD, and is now Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014.

I like to think that, in some way, I helped these students and others make wise career choices, and instilled in them a sense of their own worth. At least one former tutee (who completed her PhD at the University of Durham) has told me so, and that made it all worthwhile.


The School of Biological Sciences
In September 1982, Jack Hawkes retired from the Mason Chair of Botany, and a young lecturer, Jim Callow from the University of Leeds, was elected to the position. Jim took on the role of MSc Course leader, but the day-to-day administration fell to Brian Ford-Lloyd (as Tutor) and myself (for the Short Course students). Jim was a physiologist/ biochemist with an interest in biotechnology, but nothing about genetic resources. He also had little understanding (or sympathy, so I felt) for my areas of research and teaching interests. He frankly did not understand, so I never developed a good relationship with him.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

My closest colleague in the department was Brian who had been appointed to a lectureship around 1977 or 1978. He had completed his PhD in the department in 1973, and he and I were graduate students together until I moved to Peru. We became good friends, and this friendship has lasted until today. He also lived in Bromsgrove, and after I returned to the UK on retirement in 2010, Brian (now Professor Ford-Lloyd) and I would meet up every few weeks for a few beers at the Red Lion on Bromsgrove’s High Street, and to put the world to rights.

On reflection, I can say that relationships among the staff of Plant Biology were pretty harmonious, notwithstanding the comment I made earlier. But several staff were approaching retirement as well, so there was quite a change in the department when a couple of young lecturers were also appointed within a year of me, Drs John Newbury and Jon Green, both of whom also rose to professorships late in their careers.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the School of Biological Sciences underwent a fundamental reorganization, abandoning the federal system, and transforming into a single department with a unitary Head of School. Much to the chagrin of my friends and colleagues in Genetics, Jim Callow was selected as the first Head of School under this new arrangement. To replace the old four department structure, we organized ourselves into five research themes. I joined the Plant Genetics Group, moving my office once again closer to other group members. As a member of this group, I probably had two or three of the best years I spent at Birmingham, with Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey as my head of group.


Research and publications
My research interests focused on potatoes and legumes, often sustained by a healthy cohort of MSc and PhD students.

One project, funded by the British government from overseas aid budget in partnership with CIP, investigated the options for breeding potatoes grown from true potato seed. A project that we had to pull the plug on after five years.

In another, Brian and I worked with a commercial crisping (potato chips, in US parlance) company to produce improved potato varieties using induced somaclonal variation, leading to some interesting and unexpected implications for in vitro genetic conservation. There was also an interesting PR outcome from the project.

All in all, my group research led to 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and a range of contributions to the so-called grey literature (not peer-reviewed, but nonetheless important scientifically). You can open a list of those Birmingham publications here.

I’m also proud of the introductory textbook on genetic resources that Brian and I wrote together, published in 1986. It quickly sold its print run of more than 3000 copies.

Then, in 1989, we organized a weekend conference (with Professor Martin Parry of the Department of Geography) on climate change, leading to the pioneer publication of the conference proceedings in 1990 [3] in this newly-emerged field of climate change science. Brian, Martin and I collaborated almost a quarter of a century later to edit another book on the same topic.

I was fortunate to undertake one or two consultancies during my years at Birmingham. The most significant was a three week assignment towards the end of the decade to review a seed production project funded by the Swiss government, that took us Huancayo in the Central Andes, to Cajamarca in the north, and Cuzco in the south, as well as on the coast. This was an excellent project, which we recommended for second phase funding, that ultimately collapsed due to the conflict with the terrorist group Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso that affected all parts of Peruvian society.

The seed project review team (L-R): Peruvian agronomist, me (University of Birmingham), Cesar Vittorelli (CIP Liaison), Swiss economist (SDC), Carlos Valverde (ISNAR, team leader)

With funding from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega was able to collect an indigenous legume species from his native Canary Islands in 1989, for his dissertation research. I joined Javier for three weeks on that trip.

Collecting escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus) in Tenerife in 1989


All work and no play . . .
Each December, the Plant Biology Christmas party was usually held at Winterbourne House. For several years, we organized a pantomime, written and produced by one of the graduate students, Wendy (I don’t remember her surname). These were great fun, and everyone could let their hair down, taking the opportunity for some friendly digs at one staff member or another. In the photos below, I played the Fairy Godmother in a 1987 version of Cinderella, and on the right, I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, seen here with graduate student Hilary Denny as Aladdin. In the top left photo, kneeling on the right, and wearing what looks like a blue saucepan on his head, is Ian Godwin, a postdoc from Australia for one year. Ian is now Professor of Crop Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. To Ian’s left is Liz Aitken, also a postdoc at that time who came from the University of Aberdeen, and now also a Professor at the University of Queensland.

Then, in the summer months, I organized a departmental barbecue that we held in Winterbourne Gardens, that were part of the department in those days, and now open to the public. In this photo, I’m being assisted by one of my PhD students, Denise Burman.

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Moving on
So why did I leave in July 1991?

Professor Martin Parry

Towards the end of the 1980s I also became heavily involved in a university-wide initiative, known as Environmental Research Management or ERM, to promote the university’s expertise in environmental research, chaired by Martin Parry (I became the Deputy Chair). So, coupled with my own teaching, research, and administrative duties in Biological Sciences, I was quite busy, and on my way to promotion. I was doing all the ‘right things’, and working my way up the promotions ladder (competing with all other eligible staff in the Science Faculty). It was quite helpful that the Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor George Morrison (a nuclear physicist), and someone with his finger on the promotions pulse, also took a close interest in ERM, and I got to know him quite well.

When I handed in my resignation in March 1991, I knew that my application for promotion to Senior Lecturer was about to be approved (I was already on the Senior Lecturer pay scale). By then, however, life in academia had lost some of its allure. And Margaret Thatcher was to blame.

Around 1998 or 1989, the Thatcher government forced a number of ‘reforms’ on the universities, bringing in performance initiatives and the like, without which the government would not consider either increased funding to the system or pay increases for staff.

So we all underwent performance management training (something I became very familiar with during the next phases of my career). It was made clear that staff who were struggling (as teachers, researchers, or even with administration) would be offered help and remedial training to up their game. Those of us performing well (which included myself) were offered the opportunity to take on even more. It was a breaking point moment. With the increased emphasis on research performance and research income, I felt that my time in academia had almost run its course. My research interests did not easily attract research council funding. I was beginning to feel like a square peg in a round hole.

So, when in September 1990, a job advert for the position of head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI landed on my desk, I successfully threw my hat in the ring, and joined IRRI in July 1991, remaining there for the next 19 years, before retiring back to the UK in May 2010.

With few regrets I resigned and prepared for the move to the Philippines. I had to see my students (both undergraduate and MSc) through their exams in June before I could, with good conscience, leave the university. My last day was Friday 30 June, and Brian often reminds me that when he came round to our house in Bromsgrove to say goodbye and wish me well the following day, he was shocked at how white-faced and stressed I appeared. Well, it was a big move and I was leaving the family behind for the next six months, and heading off into the unknown to some extent. Early on Sunday morning I headed to Birmingham International Airport to begin the long journey east via London Heathrow.


But that’s not quite the end of my academic life. Not long after I joined IRRI, I was appointed Affiliate Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Then, with Brian, John Newbury, and colleagues at the John Innes Centre, we developed a collaborative research project looking at the application of molecular markers to study and manage the large rice germplasm collection at IRRI. I was appointed Honorary Senior Lecturer at Birmingham, and for several years when I was back on home leave I would visit the university and lecture to the MSc students on the realities and challenges of managing a large genebank, as well as following up on our research collaboration.

That came to an end when the funding ran out after five years, and I moved out of research and genebank management at IRRI into a senior management position as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

As Director for Program Planning and Communications, I had line management responsibility for (L-R) Communications and Publications Services (Gene Hettel), IRRI’s library (Mila Ramos), IT Services (Marco van den Berg), the Development Office (Duncan Macintosh), and Program Planning (Corinta Guerta).


Was I cut out for a life in academia? Yes and no. I think I fulfilled my duties conscientiously, and with some success in some aspects. I admit that my research contributions were not the strongest perhaps. But I did mostly enjoy the teaching and the interaction with students. I always felt that not enough weight was given to one’s teaching contributions. Back in the day research was the main performance metric, and increasingly the amount of research funding that one could generate. That was a bit of a treadmill. So while I mostly enjoyed my decade at Birmingham, I found the next nineteen years at IRRI far more satisfying. I had the opportunity to put my stamp on an important component of the institute’s program, bringing the genebank and its operations into the 21st century, and ensuring the safety and availability of one of the world’s most important germplasm collections. Having left genebanking behind in 2001, I then enjoyed another nine years as a member of the institute’s senior management team. And, on reflection, I think those management years gave me the most satisfaction of my career.


Roger Rowe

[1] Steph also worked at CIP as an Associate Geneticist assisting the head of department, Dr Roger Rowe (who co-supervised my PhD research), to manage the germplasm collection. Prior to joining CIP, Steph had been a research assistant with the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that, in those days, was housed at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh. The CPC is now maintained at the James Hutton Institute west of Dundee.

[2] These were: Zoology & Comparative Physiology; Genetics; and Microbiology. With Plant Biology, the four departments were administratively semi-independent in a federal School of Biological Sciences, coming together to teach a degree in Biological Sciences, with specialisms in the component disciplines. All first year biologists took the same common course, as well as a multidisciplinary common course in their second year and an evolution course in the third and final year.

In 2000, the School of Biological Sciences merged with the School of Biochemistry to form the School of Biosciences. Then, in 2008, there was a much larger university-wide reorganization, and Biosciences became part of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, one of five Colleges that replaced Faculties across the university.

[3] Jackson, M., B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), 1990. Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, p. 190.

* On 6 May 2021, it was announced that Noni had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society!

Gibside: home of ‘the Unhappy Countess’

20210225 002 GibsideGibside (///lime.clap.joke) is a large (600 acre) estate, now a National Trust property, that lies on the south side of the River Derwent in County Durham (the Land of the Prince Bishops), and nine miles southwest of Newcastle upon Tyne. There is plenty of good walking at Gibside, and it’s very dog-friendly. There are several ruined buildings.

There are impressive views from different parts of the estate over the surrounding Durham and Northumberland landscapes.

20210225 072 Gibside

Gibside was acquired by the Blakiston family in the mid-16th century. It moved into the Bowes family in 1713 when Elizabeth Blakiston married Sir William Bowes.

It was once the home of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800), who later came to be known as ‘The Unhappy Countess‘. Mary Eleanor was the granddaughter of Sir William.

Born in London, she was the daughter of Sir George Bowes, a wealthy coal merchant. On his death, eleven year old Mary Eleanor was left one of the wealthiest heiresses in the country, attracting the attention of several suitors. She had a passion for botany. And men, if the rumours are to be believed, leading to a very unsatisfactory and unhappy second marriage.

At 16, she was betrothed to John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and married him two years later. One of the conditions of her father’s will was that Lyon should change his family name to Bowes, which he duly did to avail of Mary’s substantial fortune. Some of their children however used a hyphenated version of both family names. Thus the Bowes-Lyon dynasty was born. Mary’s great-great-great granddaughter was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, wife of King George VI and mother of Queen Elizabeth II.

But let’s get back to poor Mary. After nine years of marriage, and five children, the earl died of tuberculosis, leaving Mary an eligible widow heiress. A situation exploited by her second husband, an Anglo-Irish rogue Andrew Robinson Stoney.


2021-03-22_121017Gibside Hall is an early 17th century Jacobean manor house, that has seen better days. It was finally abandoned in the 1950s, although the family had long since decamped to their other property, Glamis Castle in Scotland.

Scattered around the estate besides the ruined house are an orangery, a large walled garden (now being renovated), a stable block some distance from the house (and now housing a small cafe and toilets, Covid-closed during our recent visit on 25 February) and, high above the estate, an 18th century Banqueting House which was used for entertainment. It is owned by the Landmark Trust.

Near the entrance to Gibside, on the southwest corner, is a fine Greek Palladian chapel, designed by renowned Palladian architect James Paine, and begun in 1760. The exterior was completed by 1767, but the interior was not finished until the early 19th century.

The chapel stands at the southwest end of the half-mile-long Avenue (or ‘Long walk’), with views towards the Column to  Liberty.

20210225 006 Gibside

And the Column (originally known as the Column of British Liberty) certainly dominates the landscape and can be seen for miles around. It was built in the 1750s, and stands 150 feet tall, with the gilded statue adding another fourteen feet or so.


We’ve now visited Gibside three or four times. Having recently moved to the northeast, it is now one of our ‘local’ NT properties (just as Hanbury Hall was in Worcestershire). Given the number of visitors on the day of our recent visit (all Covid-booked and timed tickets), Gibside is a popular destination for recreation. We look forward to many more visits and exploring some of those paths that invitingly wander off into the undergrowth. I’m sure Gibside will keep us occupied for many visits to come.


 

Being an expat . . .

Expatriate? Expat? Does it merely denote someone living outside their native country?

Not according to Mawuna Remarque Koutonin (right) writing in The Guardian in March 2015, suggesting that it’s a term “reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad”. I’m not sure I can agree with his point of view, although I do understand where Koutonin is coming from.

His article, Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? argues that not everyone who goes outside their country to work is an ‘expat’. He emphatically states that: “Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’”.

I’m a white British national, born in the UK, and spent much of my career working overseas. Was I an expat? I must have been. Not because of any ‘western superior white status’, I must emphasise. Simply because I never considered myself an immigrant. Better advantaged? Certainly. Not by being an expat per se, but because I’d been recruited internationally to work at two agricultural research centers. And that, in itself, gave me some advantages that others did not enjoy. Let me explain.

I have lived in three countries: in Peru (1973-1976) and Costa Rica (1976-1980) with the International Potato Center (CIP); and the Philippines (1991-2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). I was a temporary resident in these countries (even though I spent nineteen years in the Philippines), never expecting to settle down there, nor indeed become a citizen. I was employed on short-term (renewable) contracts, with the expectation that once my contract had ended, I would leave the country. In fact, it was a requirement of the visa—often diplomatic or semi-diplomatic—that I must leave.

And in each of these assignments, I worked alongside colleagues from a whole host of countries, from the Americas, Africa, Asia, as well as Europe. In my book we were all expats together. Maybe some of them didn’t see things the same way, but in terms of how we were employed and resided in each country, there was no difference.

My expat experience was different in all three countries. In Peru, my wife Steph and I lived among the community in Lima, renting an apartment in the heart of one of the city’s commercial districts, Miraflores (where we married in October 1973). At CIP, staff were expected to find and rent (although subsidised) appropriate accommodation. Some chose apartment-living like us; others moved to the suburbs closer to the center’s research facility at La Molina on the east of the city. But wherever we lived, our next door neighbors were more likely to be Peruvian rather than another expat family. Even so, it was not easy to get to know one’s neighbors.

As internationally-recruited staff, there’s no doubt that compared to locally-recruited staff (even professional staff with comparable qualifications such a PhD, for instance), we had better pay. We also enjoyed tax-free living and importation of household effects, privileges that Peruvian staff could not benefit from legally. So, in that respect there was a clear distinction between ‘expat’ staff (from wherever they had been recruited) and local staff. Some of those disparities were reduced by the end of the 70s.

Whenever possible, Steph and I traveled outside Lima along the coast, up into the Andes, and into the tropical lowlands on the east side of the mountains. This post describes one trip to the north of the country.

Climbing the Santa Eulalia valley in July 1973, a week or so after Steph joined me in Lima.

Living the expat life was different in Costa Rica and the Philippines. In Costa Rica we lived on the campus of the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Turrialba, some 70 km east of the capital, San José.

The view of the Turrialba volcano from my garden on the CATIE campus.

While working for CIP in Central America, CATIE had agreed to provide me with a work base—and housing. It was a regional center, focusing its research on Central America largely, and recruiting its own staff from South and Central America. There were few Europeans, US or Canadian staff. I don’t remember anyone from Africa or Asia. But we all worked at CATIE under the same visa status. Expats together.

And in the Philippines, at IRRI, it was gated community living once again (as it was for many Filipinos in the upper echelons of society). When IRRI was founded in 1960 there was limited housing available in Los Baños (some 70 km south of Manila) for international staff, or of a quality likely to attract staff to relocate with their families to the Philippines. Sixty years later, the Staff Housing is still there. It has been well-maintained, mostly, and provides a stock of more than 50 houses and apartments for international staff, and sports facilities like a swimming pool, tennis courts and basketball. While there are now more houses out there in the community for rent, Staff Housing, with its own generators (power cuts, known euphemistically as ‘brownouts’ are a regular occurrence) is a safe environment for the expat families. But, it does set them apart, and I’ve no doubt that generates some resentment among the local community. Although, 50 or more families do contribute to the local economy and provide employment opportunities for domestic staff.

Campus or gated community living has its compensations of course, and its challenges. Every neighbor is a work colleague, some of whom you get along with quite well, others not so much. That situation is typical of every workplace. It’s just that in a gated community you get to see these persons outside work hours more frequently than perhaps you might otherwise choose.

Steph and I enjoyed campus living in both Costa Rica and the Philippines. We had a close group of friends with whom we socialised on a regular basis. That’s not to say we avoided others. It’s just that such communities tend to subdivide more or less along nationality lines. But we all got together for various festivities, notwithstanding the multiplicity of cultural and religious beliefs: Christmas and New Year, Chinese New Year, Fourth of July, Moon Festival, Diwali, and the like. And that’s not to mention the various institute-sponsored cocktails and dinners for honored visitors, especially during the twice-yearly meetings of the Board of Trustees.

Campus living in the Philippines was great for the children. When we first moved there in 1991, Hannah and Philippa were 13 and nine, respectively. And they encountered an environment they had never experienced before, with many children of their own ages and older, who would get up to all sorts of mischief without parents never really knowing what was going on. But it was safe at least.

And if the sense of living in a goldfish bowl got too much, then there were always things to do away from Los Baños. Quite a number of my colleagues continued with, or took up golf. The Philippines has many world-class courses not far away. And many, like me took to the water and learned to scuba dive, with some of the best diving just a couple of hours south from home.

It was great learning to dive alongside my daughters, and enjoying hours underwater exploring the marine biodiversity of the Anilao coast.

Living the expat life all those years (almost 28 years) I had a very satisfying career, scientifically challenging. I visited many wonderful places around the globe, and met some remarkable scientists. But my expat status was a circumstance not something intrinsic to being a white British national. One expat among many—black, Asian, and Latino, as well as white westerners.


 

Fifty is a mature number . . .

I came across a tweet a few days ago from the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru), reminding everyone that the center will celebrate its Golden Jubilee later this year. Fifty years of successfully bringing improved potato and sweet potato varieties and enhanced technologies to the world!

And that got me thinking about the achievements of international agricultural research in general over the past half century, and even a little longer. Let me expand.

CIP’s founding Director General (1971-1991) was Dr Richard Sawyer who envisioned a regional research [network] and collaboration with researchers around the world to develop new technologies and innovations to improve food security. He was my first boss. I joined CIP in January 1973 (when it was still a small institute finding its feet), and just after it had become one of the first international agricultural research centers (often referred to as IARCs) sponsored by the nascent Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

CGIAR? As Bill Gates wrote in 2019: Never heard of CGIAR? You’re not alone. It’s an organization that defies easy brand recognition . . . It’s too bad that more people don’t know about CGIAR. Their work to feed our hungry planet is as important now as it’s ever been.

The CGIAR was founded on 19 May 1971 and also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was set up as an informal organization of countries, international development agencies and private foundations [1] that cooperate in underwriting a network of independent, international agricultural research institutes, and originally co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The CGIAR has undergone a series of transformations since its founding and has, in my opinion, spent far too long navel gazing over the past 30 years about what its role should be—and those of the constituent centers—and how all that research effort could or should be organized. Goodness knows what the opportunity costs (and the actual costs) of interminable consultations, meetings, and the like have been.

Despite the organizational and funding bumps (and scientific challenges, sometimes failures) in the 50 year road, the CGIAR and the IARCs it supports have been incredibly successful. The return on investment in international agricultural research (particularly with regard to plant breeding) has been impressive, not only in monetary terms, but more crucially in terms of the numbers of people who were brought out of poverty or who avoided chronic food shortages.

Let me again quote Bill Gates: No other institution has done as much to feed our world as CGIAR.


Today, there are 15 IARCs in the CGIAR network in 14 (mainly tropical or sub-tropical) countries across the globe, although two, Bioversity International in Rome and the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, have recently formed an Alliance under a single Director General and Board of Trustees.

Four of them pre-date the CGIAR, but were immediately adopted in 1971 once the CGIAR was up and running.

The oldest, at 61 years, is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), founded in 1960 [2] in the Philippines, where I happily (and productively) spent almost 19 years from 1991 to 2010. IRRI was responsible for the Green Revolution in Asia, releasing many high-yielding, short-strawed rice varieties (perhaps the most famous of which was IR8) that were widely adopted because they out-yielded the varieties that farmers were growing in the 1960s.

The International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (known as CIMMYT by its Spanish acronym) is located just northeast of Mexico City, and was founded in 1966. It was the institutional home for many years of that pioneer of the Green Revolution and 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr Norman Borlaug.

Two regional centers, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA, in Ibadan, Nigeria) and CIAT, were founded in 1967 in 1970, respectively. Unlike the crop specific mandates of IRRI and CIMMYT (on rice, wheat, and maize), these two centers had a broader ecogeographic focus on a range of crop and livestock systems.

The International Centre for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT, located in Hyderabad, India) was established in 1972, and along with CIP was adopted by the CGIAR that same year.

By 1980, there were 13 centers, and five more were added by 1990. There then followed a period of consolidation. Two centers in Ethiopia and Kenya working on livestock and animal diseases merged. A banana and plantain network in France was absorbed into the genetic resources institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome, and in 2002 another institute, ISNAR (in The Hague, Netherlands) was shut down.

So for the past decade and a half, the CGIAR system has stabilised around 15 centers, and to quote Bill Gates once again: . . . most referred to by their own confusing acronyms . . . leaving the uninitiated feeling as if they’ve fallen into a bowl of alphabet soup.

It was a privilege to work at CIP (1973-1981) and IRRI (1991-2010), over 27 years in total. And even while I was teaching at the University of Birmingham between 1981 and 1991, I retained research links with and visited CIP, and also carried out other consultancy work with it and other centers.


Much of the early CGIAR-sponsored research was directed towards increasing crop productivity, breeding new crop varieties that yielded better than existing varieties as I mentioned above in relation to rice. And delving into the large and impressive—and genetically diverse—genebank collections that the centers had set up as a safety net to preserve heritage varieties. There was increased adoption of new varieties by farmers seeking to improve their livelihoods, and old varieties had, in many instances, been cast aside. Who could question their desire to improve their lots, to feed their families, and send their children to school with the hope and expectation that education would help bring them out of poverty and a better life than as a subsistence farmer?

Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was focused on natural resources such as soils and water, and how these could be managed sustainably. And of course, lying at the heart of everything (which I’m bound to stress, given my background in conservation and use of plant genetic resources) are the eleven center genebanks, the largest and most important network of genebanks worldwide, safely conserving more than 760,000 samples (known as genebank accessions) of cereals, grain legumes, forages, tree species, root and tuber crops, and bananas. This network is supported in part through the Crop Trust.

By the 1990s the early CGIAR model of productivity-focused research was being challenged and, as I mentioned above, research was expanding on the sustainability of natural resources. Furthermore, even the role of international centers was being questioned, whether they were needed any longer. National programs were becoming stronger and less dependent on the international centers for resources and research support, although training of agricultural research professionals remained an important partnership outcome. The centers produce what are known as international public goods, having an impact across multiple locations and sites. The sharing of breeding lines and new varieties is perhaps one of the best examples. National program research is much more site specific.

The international framework within which the centers operated was also becoming more challenging. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in 1993, followed by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted in 2004. These directly affected how centers could maintain their collections of genetic resources and share them globally. On the financial front there was growing concern about the long-term funding to support these collections that has now been resolved, in part, by the intervention of the Crop Trust and its grants to support the center collections in perpetuity from the Endowment Fund.

Then, in September 2000, at its Millennium Summit, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) setting out an ambitious agenda to be reached by 2015. A review of progress made in 2015—not as much as hoped for—culminated in the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by UN Member States.

Clearly the adoption of the MDGs, followed by the upgraded SDGs was something that the CGIAR could not ignore, it it wanted to remain relevant. Centers quickly set about explaining how CGIAR-supported researched aligned with and contributed towards achieving these important development goals.

Research across the CGIAR system was reorganized into a series of programs and other initiatives. In its latest reincarnation, One CGIAR is a dynamic reformulation of CGIAR’s partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence, aiming for greater integration and impact in the face of the interdependent challenges facing today’s world . . . providing scientific innovations for food, land and water systems. Here is an example how IITA . . . has participated in the unfolding plans and is strategically positioned to contribute to the One-CGIAR agenda in sub-Saharan Africa.

I should also add that, importantly, response to climate change (and its impact on agriculture and natural resources) has been an important element of the CGIAR agenda for many years now.

I don’t wish to sound cynical, but I think the jury is still out. The CGIAR hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in its previous attempts to reorganize. When it comes to change management, it has, in my opinion, taken its collective eye off the ball in terms of the system’s greatest assets: the actual centers and their loyal staff. A former colleague recently shared with me a piece he’d written describing the various attempts to restructure the CGIAR over the years: A solid long-term programme of change management must be put in place which addresses the required culture change needed on merging institutions with long, proud histories and staff who may have served for decades becoming deeply steeped in a given institutional culture.


So, how was research organized and funded? The two are obviously not independent one from the other.

Back in the day, centers received block grants or ‘core’ funding (often referred to as ‘unrestrictive funding’) from donor countries and agencies through the CGIAR. Being independent of one another (and the CGIAR not having any legal identity then) centers set their own research agendas, reporting annually on what had been achieved (outcomes and impact being the name of the game) and how the funding had been spent. The enthusiasm for the IARC model in the 70s and 80s was reflected in the growth of support, and the expansion of the CGIAR agenda to include new centers.

But around the mid-90s, this funding model was under threat. Donors demanded more accountability for their funds, and to influence directly the actual research that centers carried out. They did this by resorting to competitive funding for defined and time-limited project grants, which also meant more time and effort to prepare, submit, and account (scientifically and financially) for these projects than centers had been accustomed to. But it was a model that was here to stay. Unrestricted funding is now almost a thing of the past.

When I left research in 2001 to become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) I took on responsibility for the institute’s research project portfolio. Not what we did; that was the role of the Deputy Director General-Research. My role, among other responsibilities, was to liaise with donors and keep them happy and, in doing so, grow the institute’s budget (which we did very successfully).

When centers were solely responsible, as it were, for their research agendas, they had to accommodate project funding into their research strategic plans—their research blueprints. But it’s important to emphasise that IARC research was never (or hardly ever) science for the sake of science. It was scientific research with a purpose, aimed at real-life issues and constraints. And it had to be the right science of the highest quality. Not that this lofty goal was always achieved.

When I arrived at IRRI in July 1991, its research was organized through the notoriously difficult matrix management, which does have its conceptual appeal. The research program had two axes: programs on one axis, and the contributing scientific divisions on the other. The programs set the research agenda, and the research divisions contributed the scientific expertise. Or, as another former colleague, and head of IRRI’s Plant Pathology Division, Tom Mew explained it (and here I paraphrase): the programs choose the right science (i.e., what needs to be done) and the divisions do the science right. What I soon realised was that at CIP (back in 1973) there was a form of matrix management, with the research arranged in Research Thrusts. But IRRI’s not-altogether-successful implementation of matrix management was probably the first real attempt to employ this approach. It depends on an equal balance (and some tension) between program leaders and division heads. And it was my perception that a couple of long-serving division heads didn’t take kindly to any ‘erosion’ of their influence under matrix management and therefore did not support its implementation as enthusiastically as one might have expected. I’ll say no more.

In this diagram, I have assigned illustrative percentage values of how each research division allocated its resources (particularly staff time) to each of the rice ecosystem-focused programs.

Just a few years later, as the CGIAR navel gazing began in earnest, the research agenda was being reformulated in system-wide programs, organized in a type of matrix management (read ‘centers’ for ‘divisions’) and involving many more players outside the CGIAR as full partners in the research. I should mention that healthy and extensive research partnerships between centers and other institutions had existed even from the early days. However, external players are now much more intimately involved in determining (and implementing) the research.


Since I’ve been retired for eleven years, I’ll be interested to see—from afar—how the CGIAR and its centers fare. While I feel that both have lost their way somewhat, I still have faith that the system will eventually come good, and bring about outcomes and impacts that were the signatures of the system’s heyday. Hopefully, there are better days ahead for international agricultural research. Whether that means another half century or less remains to be seen. Getting past the next decade will be challenge enough.


[1] The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now one of the largest donors to the CGIAR.

[2] The agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations was signed on 9 December 1959. IRRI’s Board of Trustees met for the first time on 14 April 1960 and approved the institute’s constitution an by-laws. The 1960 date is often cited as the foundation date.

 

The past changes a little every time we retell it (Hilary Mantel).

When I retired in 2010, I briefly toyed with the idea of enrolling at the Open University for a BA degree in history. That would have been quite a departure for me, since I already have graduate degrees in botany.

However, over the years working as an agricultural research scientist and academic, I developed a keen amateur interest in history, and was fortunate to visit many interesting historical and archaeological sites all over the world, such as the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example, or the Great Wall of China, that stand as silent and emblematic reminders of once powerful empires.

When you think about it, history is often the narrative of subjugation of one nation, society or culture by another. To the victors the spoils, who then make the rules, control the narrative.


Much of my recreational reading for the past 30 years consisted of biographies and histories. Not just UK history, but increasingly, accounts of the American Civil War in particular. During our road trip in the USA in 2019, I persuaded Steph to include several important Civil War sites in our itinerary.

I also quite enjoy historical novels, and over the past few months polished off the Wolf Hall trilogy by twice winner of the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel.

So much so that I then borrowed A Place of Greater Safety from our local library, her 1992 account of the French Revolution seen through the eyes of three protagonists: Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. That inspired me to find a history of that traumatic event. So I’ve now just opened the first pages of Stephen Clarke’s The French Revolution (first published in 2018) that I came across on the library website. I must look for Simon Schama’s 1989 Citizens.


When I was in high school in the 1960s neither of my two (maybe three) history teachers spawned any affection for their subject. Everything was taught by rote, with little contextual analysis of principals or events. In contrast, my two daughters Hannah and Philippa, who studied for their International Baccalaureate (IB) Diplomas at the International School Manila, thrived on history (even though both became psychologists). Hannah’s extended essay (an IB requirement, which she could have chosen from any of her six subjects) focused on the impact of the emerging railways on the canals in 19th century England. Philippa had a poor history experience for the first year of her IB course, which was rescued in the second when a new teacher, Mr Fischer, was appointed to take over a potentially failing class. He dragged them up by their historical bootstraps, so to speak, encouraging them to higher achievements. Philippa was awarded the highest grade 7, one of the few at that level worldwide for her particular modern European history course. How I wish I’d had an inspirational history teacher like that.


While I’ve more recently taken an interest in American history, I was initially drawn to 18th and early 19th century European history, essentially the period between the accession George I in 1714 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This was the Age of Enlightenment and industrialization, the transition from rural to urban economies, with all the privations that growing urban populations had to endure. It was a time of great social change, but also polarization of politics, particularly as that age-old rivalry between Great Britain and France spilled over into so many different conflicts across Europe. It was also an age of colonial expansion (by many powers, not just Great Britain) and empire building. And the height of slavery.


Historical narratives do change, as new evidence comes to light and events reinterpreted. I never cease to be amazed at how much of the last 1,000 years of our history is carefully preserved in the National Archives at Kew in London, where primary documents are available for historical research. I also discovered that the UK Parliament still prints its laws (for archival purposes) on long-lasting vellum made from calf- or goat-skin. The oldest extant law available on vellum dates back to 1497.

But apart from dates and places, people and events, history is also about relationships, of motives, of actions taken and their consequences. That’s why narratives do meander over the years, depending on the interests and perspectives of each historian, and whether they have a particular historical (or even political) axe to grind.


Today, however, historians (and society in general) face another challenge: how to view the past through a 21st century prism, as well as in terms of today’s mores.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) anti-racism campaign has forced us all to confront the uncomfortable truth that the twin abominations of racism and slavery are very much part of our nation’s narrative.  As are the consequences of colonial expansion and empire and that, all-too-frequently, atrocities were perpetrated in the name of King/Queen and Country. Abominations that must be acknowledged, not set aside or brushed under the carpet as irrelevant to society today.

Since I was born in the first half (just) of the 20th century, in 1948 actually, can I be held responsible for what past generations perpetrated? Not directly, of course. We can’t turn back the clock, but my generation can finally face up to issues that, until now, were too uncomfortable to accept or talk about openly.

One particular highlight of the BLM campaign here in the UK last year was the toppling of the statue of Bristol merchant and philanthropist, Sir Edward Colston (1636-1721), that ended up in Bristol harbour.

The statue was erected in 1895, but in recent years Bristolians had begun to question why the city continued to give prominency to someone whose fortune was derived from his involvement in the slave trade. At least one civic building and street had also been named after him.

But was giving Colston’s statue the heave-ho an acceptable way to address this issue? Can we expunge Colston and his like from history? Clearly the answer is ‘No’. A few days after his downfall, the statue was retrieved from the depths of the harbour, and after undergoing repair and cleaning, it will be displayed in a local museum in a way that contextualises Colston and the age in which he lived. We need explanation and understanding, not destruction.

The same goes for other statues, such as that of imperialist (and racist) Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College at Oxford University. Oxford is not the only place where Rhodes has faced this ignominy.

Some protestors have demanded the removal of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill from Parliament Square in London, because of his racist and imperialist views. Churchill was not alone among his generation in being racist. But he is celebrated today for his leadership as the nation faced an overwhelming threat from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The question we need to ask is whether his racism should trump his war leadership record? We need, I believe, a nuanced appraisal and understanding of this statesman (and others as well). We can and should condemn unacceptable (to us) beliefs and actions, but they also have to be understood in their contemporaneous context.


Steph and I are keen members of the National Trust, and if you check out the National Trust and English Heritage page on this blog, you will find accounts of the many glorious country houses that we have visited over the past decade.

In the wake of BLM campaign, some are accusing the National Trust of being overly woke. On a recent visit to Cragside in Northumberland, there was this message at the foot of the main staircase relating to a statue higher up:

I came across this article by historian David Olusoga in The Guardian yesterday, a commentary on those who are attacking ‘woke’ history.

The National Trust has a big task ahead. You only have to visit properties like Powis Castle where there is an impressive collection of Indian artefacts once belonging to Robert Clive, one of the founders of the British Empire in India. Or Kedleston Hall near Derby, where some of the treasures on display date from the period when George Nathaniel, Lord Curzon was Viceroy of India.

The treasures in these houses (and many others in the National Trust portfolio) were assembled over decades if not centuries through colonial settlement and/or slavery. Now the National Trust is beginning to better explain the background to the accumulation of such wealth. But it’s not just colonialism and slavery. For many land owners their wealth was created much closer to home, through merciless exploitation of the labouring classes, almost as a form of slavery in itself.

Confronting the past will be a challenge for the National Trust, and society as a whole. Then there are the ‘spoils’ of empire building locked up in museums all over Europe. The debate continues whether museums should repatriate artefacts that were acquired (= stolen in many instances) during the Age of Empire.

At least one museum, the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne has revealed plans to ‘decolonize’ its collections, because . . . a number of our objects are inextricably linked with Britain’s colonial past and systemic racism . . . acquired over 250 years.

As the museum’s Keeper of Archaeology stated: Decolonisation, for us, is not an attempt to completely rewrite history, but rather an effort to shed light on areas of our past that have been neglected, or simply ignored.

I’m sure other museums will follow. Hopefully this will, in a small way, help counter the British exceptionalism narrative that has emerged during the Brexit debate, that has, in my opinion, also revealed just how deep-seated racism is in our society today. Not overt racism perhaps, but pervasive all the same.


 

It’s all NEWS to me. Definitely not fake!

Cornwall

Over the past two weeks, Steph and I have been enjoying a BBC2 TV series about Cornwall by the Padstow-based chef, Rick Stein. For my non-UK readers, Cornwall lies at the southwest extremity of mainland Britain. In fact, the Lizard is the southernmost point.

Stein has made many other TV series, from locations all around the world, and they are primarily concerned with the food and dishes of those places. In his Cornwall series, however, Stein sets out to show what the county means to him, his home for more than five decades. Cheffing is just one aspect of the programs, as he also covers the beautiful landscapes, the people, as well as the excellent produce from land and sea for which Cornwall is renowned.

I’ve been to Cornwall just twice. In the late 1990s, while I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, I was contacted by someone from the Eden Project near St Austell, requesting samples of some rice varieties they might display in the tropical biome (in one of the original three geodesic domes).

As a special treat, Steph and I were invited to visit to the Eden Project in the summer of 2001 to have a behind-the scenes look at the project that had only just opened its doors to the public. It’s now a major world visitor attraction.

It took another sixteen years in September 2017 before we returned to Cornwall, to spend a glorious week touring the county, primarily to visit a plethora of National Trust and English Heritage sites. And among the places we visited was Lizard Point. You can’t get more southerly than here (49.9593° N, 5.2065° W). It was a glorious day when we visited, and we took advantage of the weather to walk along the cliffs and enjoy the vistas that opened up before us.

The map below shows where these photos were taken. Just check the partial vista symbols.

As we approached the view over Housel Bay and a collapsed cliff, I saw these black birds suddenly fly up from a nearby pasture. A few minutes later we were watching a pair of choughs (which feature on the Cornish coat of arms) on the rocks below. What a joy, since choughs are no longer common in Cornwall, and have only recently begun to re-establish themselves once cattle grazing practices had reverted to what was common before the chough decline. There are now about 100 breeding pairs of choughs in the county. A success story.

Having reflected on this visit to the southernmost point of mainland Britain, I remembered that, on 30 May 2015 during our 2250 mile tour of Scotland, we had visited the northernmost point of the mainland, at Dunnet Head (58.6719° N, 3.3760° W) in Caithness.

There are splendid views across the Pentland Firth to Orkney, and we were fortunate that during our visit (and John o’ Groats the day before) the views were clear. The day after you could hardly see 50m down the fog-bound road.

So as a keen geographer (I took a degree in environmental botany and geography at the University of Southampton at the end of the 1960s), I’ve always had an interest in the spaces around me; my internal GPS. That’s the N and S covered. How about E and W?

In terms of the British mainland, I’ve not visited either of the two locations with claim to E and W fame: Ness Point (52.4812° N, 1.7628° E) at Lowestoft on the coast of Suffolk in East Anglia, and Ardnamuchan Point in Scotland. I’ve been close to both but never actually visited.

What about my other NEWS around the world? Check out this map:


 

The darkest hour is just before the dawn (attributed to Thomas Fuller, 1650)

2 am or thereabouts. I’m wide awake. Not exactly just before the dawn, but sadly typical for me in recent days.

I usually settle down around 10:30 pm. But four hours on, there I am, lots of anxious thoughts swirling round my mind. I’m sure we’ve all been there. 

I’ve had my fair share of sleepless (or sleep-interrupted) nights in recent months. However, since we sold our house and moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne last September, I’ve been doing so much better. But now I feel as though I’m regressing to where I was four months ago. Why, for heaven’s sake?

When we sold our house, we hadn’t had opportunity to find and buy a new home (because we were moving 230 miles north, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, arranging house viewings from a distance was never an option). Instead, we took on a six month rental, sufficient time we envisaged to find and complete the purchase of a new home. Given that we were cash buyers, and no mortgage lenders were involved, we calculated (naïvely perhaps, on reflection) that purchasing a house under these circumstances would be pretty straightforward compared to the conveyancing trials and tribulations we experienced when selling our home. And, for the house we eventually chose, there was no chain of sales and purchases contingent one on the other.

So why the sleepless nights and increasing anxiety? Well, once again we are up against the inscrutable legal machinery (or conveyancing) of selling or purchasing a property.

Let me back up a little.

Just a few days after arriving in Newcastle and once we’d found our bearings, we began the search in earnest for a new home. We already had a list of houses of interest that we’d identified on various online sites, and made appointments to view several of these (observing, of course, the strict Covid-safe guidelines). It didn’t take long to settle on a particular house (not far from where we are renting), just two years old, and built to the latest insulation and other specifications and standards (important for two ‘old fogeys’ like Steph and me). In fact it was the third property we viewed. We quickly made an offer—a little below the asking price—that was accepted immediately. Even so, we did view some other houses afterwards as well, just to ‘validate’ our decision, in terms of location and price. 

The vendors of our new home (it’s not ours—yet) used an online estate agent (realtor), Purplebricks, to manage the sale of their property. We made our offer online as well, and were assigned a law firm to handle our side of the transaction. It seemed like a great deal. The fees were no greater than we’d had to pay a solicitor in Bromsgrove although, for a purchase, there are more fees involved than on the sale side.

The other feature that we found attractive was an online conveyancing system (eWay) that logs every phone call, email, signed document, and all other information related to the purchase. We receive regular messages telling us to check actions to complete and, in general, just keeping track of where we are in the whole process. So, in theory, we can track how our purchase is proceeding, and what steps are outstanding before contracts can be exchanged with the vendors, and a completion date agreed when we take possession of our new home.

As I said, our offer was accepted immediately, and property searches and title documents were all assembled within a month. We signed contracts ready for exchange and title transfer. However, our solicitor raised a whole series of enquiries (issues that might affect our ownership and enjoyment of the property) for the vendors and their solicitor to answer, most of which were responded to satisfactorily by the end of November.

But now we are stuck! How to cut the Gordian knot? Here’s the problem.

It’s common practice nowadays for the communal areas of a new housing development to be maintained by a management company, since local authorities often don’t have the financial wherewithal to take these on. Where we are moving to is no different. For reasons that neither the vendors or ourselves can fathom, the vendors’ solicitor has stalled on obtaining the necessary documents from the management company or their agent here in Newcastle that are needed before the title deeds can be registered in our names.

The clock is ticking. Under the terms of our rental agreement, we have to vacate our rental by 31 March. Yet my solicitor still can’t give us a date when we might exchange contracts with the vendors (which would then legally bind us to the purchase) nor when completion will take place and we can move into our new home. It seems like one obfuscation after another. Neither the vendor (whom I’m in contact with almost daily) nor I can fathom just who needs to do what, who to contact, or precisely what documents are needed. And when we ask our solicitors for clarification? Silence!

Before we moved north, it was a race to find a rental property, or else have nowhere to stay. Okay. There’s still ten weeks to the end of March, and a lot can happen—and probably quite fast once the final documents have been sorted—between now and then. Yet I can feel the pressure starting to mount, the stress increase, and a general feeling of anxiety and malaise creeping into my everyday life.

My elder daughter who lives in Minnesota is flabbergasted when I try to explain the intricacies of the house retail market here in England and Wales (there’s yet another legal system in Scotland; not sure about Northern Ireland), and just cannot understand why everything seems so complicated. While I completely understand that the legal transfer of title deeds to land or property must be executed correctly, I cannot understand why conveyancers make such a mystery of it all.

This is my current mood. I need happy thoughts . . .