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.

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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.

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 . . . 


 

Exploring the mysteries of sex . . . and taking control!

I’ve been fascinated with sex (especially controlled sex) since my undergraduate days at the University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970. We were the socially permissive flower power generation.

But before you get too excited about this post’s content, I need to point out that, as a former botany student, I’m referring to sex among plants! And plant breeding. The real flower power!


Joe Smartt and Edgar Anderson

I guess it all started with two final year honours course on plant speciation (how different species evolve) and plant breeding, taught by geneticist Dr Joe Smartt. It was through the first that I discovered the beauty of introgressive hybridization (a mechanism that blends the gene pools of separate species; see a diagrammatic explanation in this post), a concept first expounded by another of my botanical heroes, Dr Edgar Anderson. And, there was this transformative book to dip into: Variation and Evolution in Plants (published 1950) by another great American botanist, G Ledyard Stebbins. In Joe’s introduction to plant breeding, we followed yet another classic text: Principles of Plant Breeding by American plant breeder and geneticist, Robert W Allard.

Trevor Williams

And when I moved to the University of Birmingham as a graduate student in September 1970, to study for a Master’s degree in plant genetic resources, Trevor Williams taught a fascinating course on plant variation, emphasising their breeding systems, and how understanding of these was important for the conservation and use of genetic resources. Much of my career subsequently was then spent studying variation and breeding systems in two important crop species, potatoes and rice, and a minor legume species, the grasspea.


Plants reproduce in the most weird and wonderful ways. If they didn’t, humanity’s days would be numbered. Where would we be if wheat and rice plants failed to produce their grains, the potato its underground treasure of tubers, or the banana those abundant hands of green fruits? No wonder in times past folks celebrated a Harvest Festival each autumn to give thanks for a successful harvest.

Beautiful acorns on the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur

You only have to look about you in late summer, as I did each day on my walks last year, to see Nature’s bounty all around—the consequence of plant sex. The trees and bushes were dripping with fruit—2020 was a mast year (as I have written about before). I don’t think I’ve seen such a year for acorns on the oak trees. And the chestnuts, hazels, and so many others. Such exuberant fecundity!


Have you ever looked closely at a ‘typical’ flower? Well, for the most part you can see the female pistil(s) comprising the style, stigma, and ovary, and the male stamens that carry the pollen.

However, there are many variations on this basic theme, different arrangements of the sex organs, even separate male and female flowers on the same plant (known as monoecy; maize is a good example) or separate plants (dioecy; holly). Differences in plant reproductive morphology promote self fertilization or cross fertilization. In addition, there is a host of physical and genetic mechanisms to promote or prevent self fertilization, as well as limiting sex between different species. All of this is aimed at ensuring a next generation of plants, and the one after that, and so on.

Plants attract a host of pollinators: visiting insects such as bees and moths, even some nectar-feeding marsupials and bats. I watched a remarkable sequence on David Attenborough’s latest blockbuster series, A Perfect Planet a few nights ago, about the fascinating pollination role of fig wasps.

Then I came across this tweet. Cockroaches of all creatures!

Wind pollination is a common feature of many grasses. However, several wheat and rice species, for example, promiscuously dangle their stamens apparently seeking cross fertilization. But they have often self fertilized before their flowers open. That’s not to deny that some cross pollination does occur in these species, but it’s generally the exception.

Some plants appear to reproduce sexually, but they have got around actual sex through a mechanism known as apomixis. These plants produce seeds but not following the normal fertilization process, so each seedling is a genetic copy of the ‘mother’ plant.

Berries on a diploid potato species, Solanum berthaultii

Other species have given up sex (almost) altogether, instead reproducing vegetatively with the ‘offspring’ being genetically identical (or essentially identical) to the mother plant. In others, like the potato, propagation is primarily through tubers. Yet, in the Andes especially where potatoes were first domesticated, many varieties are extremely sexually fertile, and produce berries rather like small tomatoes, although they are inedible. They contain lots of small seeds that we often refer to as true potato seed or TPS. In fact, in one experiment I observed at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru where I worked during the 1970s, a colleague of mine recorded a particular variety known as Renacimiento producing more than 20 t/ha of berries, in addition to about 20 t of tubers.


Anyway, I digress somewhat. During the years I was active scientifically (before I joined the ranks of senior management at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, IRRI in the Philippines), I looked into various aspects of reproductive biology of several species.

In my doctoral research, carried out in the Andes of Peru, I investigated the breeding relationships between potato varieties with different numbers of chromosomes. The potato we consume almost on a daily basis (at least in my home) is known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, and has four sets (48 in total) of chromosomes. It is what we call a tetraploid. Many other potato species have only two sets or 24 chromosomes, and are known as diploids. The tetraploid forms are mostly self fertile; diploids, on the other hand, have a genetic system of self incompatibility, and will only produce seeds if pollinated with pollen from a different genetic type.

This or similar system of self incompatibility is known from other species, like poppies for example. Anyway, the outcome is that ‘self’ pollen will not germinate on the stigma. The two images below (of various pollinations among wild potatoes), show a typical compatible pollination and fertilization event. Lots of pollen grains have stuck to the stigma, have germinated and grown the length of the style to reach the numerous ovules in the ovary.

In these next images, showing incompatible pollinations, few pollen grains remain on the stigma, not all germinated, and those that did, grew erratically. A few pollen tubes may reach the ovules but compared to the compatible pollinations, they are many fewer.


In the 1970s, one of my colleagues at CIP, Chilean breeder/agronomist Primo Accatino, championed the use of TPS as an alternative to propagation from seed tubers. One of the weak links, as it were, in any potato production cycle is the availability and cost of disease-free seed tubers. So TPS was seen as potentially fulfilling a gap in many developing countries that had neither the infrastructure nor staff to support seed potato production.

As I mentioned earlier, the common potato is a tetraploid with four sets of chromosomes, and this complicates the genetics and breeding. Breeding at the diploid level could be more straightforward. At least that was the hope and the challenge when I embarked on a project to produce TPS lines through inbreeding diploid potatoes and single seed descent. Funded by the British government, it involved scientists at the University of Birmingham (where I had joined the staff in 1981), the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and CIP in Peru.

Was this just a pipe dream? Perhaps. Before developing the project concept, I’d had extensive discussions with my colleague at Birmingham, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence who worked on self incompatibility in poppies (that has a similar genetic system to that in potatoes). His experience with poppies showed that if one tried long and hard enough, it was possible to break the self incompatibility.

Flowers of Solanum chacoense

We tried—and ultimately failed—closing the project after five years. We decided it would take just too much investment to make progress. If only we’d had available then what are now helping to transform potato breeding: self compatible diploid lines. At the end of the 1990s, scientists working at the USDA potato collection in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin identified self compatible lines in the widespread wild species Solanum chacoense. The Sli gene that confers self compatibility is apparently more widespread than previously thought, and has now been bred into diploid lines. Had we had those self compatible lines back in the 1980s, our work would have perhaps have reached a better conclusion.


When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 to head IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), I had a collection of around 100,000 different lines of rice, cultivated and wild, to conserve in the institute’s International Rice Genebank.

With my colleagues in GRC, Dr Lu Bao-Rong, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano and Dr Ma Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, I spent several years investigating the breeding relationships between the cultivated forms of rice, Oryza sativa from Asia, and O. glaberrima from West Africa, and the closest wild Oryza species with a similar AA genome. We made thousands of crosses with the aim of understanding not only the breeding relationships, which is important to be able to better use wild species in rice breeding, but also to understand the taxonomy of wild and cultivated rices.

Pollinations (L) in the genebank screenhouse among AA genome species from Asia, Australia, and the New World, and (R) a crossing polygon from those pollinations expressed in terms of spikelet fertility.

This work led to several scientific publications, which you can access here: just look for publications with our names.


Another aspect of plant sex, important for genebank managers, is how the environment can affect plant fertility. While the seeds of many species (including rice and potatoes) can be stored at a low temperature (typically -18ºC) and for decades if not longer, it is essential that only the best seeds are placed in a genebank for long term conservation. That means ensuring that the growing conditions are the best possible to produce seeds of high quality—and in abundance—during an initial multiplication or later on for rejuvenation after some years of storage, if seed stocks are running low, or there are signs that seed viability may be declining.

At IRRI, in Los Baños south of Manila, we were faced with managing a large germplasm collection of rice lines from all over Asia, from Africa, and South America as well. And these had been collected over a very broad latitudinal range, while Los Baños sits at around 14ºN. We were attempting to grow in a single location many different rice lines, some of which had evolved under more temperate conditions, under different temperature regimes and daylengths.

Kameswara Rao

With my colleague Dr Kameswara Rao (and Professor Richard Ellis from the University of Reading, UK) we spent three years carefully analyzing the effects of different growing environments on seed quality for conservation. Just look for publications here under our names to check out what we achieved. The important changes we made to how we grew rice lines for optimum seed quality have endured until today, although (as I have reported elsewhere) changes to post-harvest handling of seeds have been improved through the work of former IRRI seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay.


So, as you can see, there are many different, and interesting, facets to plant sex. And as plant breeders and gene conservationists, we aim to exploit the idiosyncrasies of each species to produce more productive crop varieties or ensure the long term survival of varieties that no longer find favor with farmers, or wild species whose habitats are threatened through agricultural expansion, increasing urbanization, or climate change.


 

Thoughts from a neo-psephologist

Until now, I’ve never really been in favor of proportional representation in elections. But as I get older (though probably not a lot wiser) I’m coming round to the idea, and electoral reform in general (not only in the UK but elsewhere). The UK’s First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. It’s not as though we’ve never had a stab at proportional representation. Elections to the European Parliament were run in this way.

So what has brought about this Damascene experience? Well, you only have to examine the consequences of the 19 December 2019 General Election here in the UK or the recent presidential election in the USA to realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV). The current parliamentary makeup is not serving the people adequately here.

I’m surely not the only person who feels that the current Boris Johnson-led Conservative Government is the most inept, corrupt even, of any government they have had to live under. During my lifetime (I’m 72), the UK has had fifteen Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson served twice; there was a gap of almost four years between his first administration ending in June 1970, and returning to power in March 1974), eleven were Oxford educated, one at Edinburgh, and the other three (including Sir Winston Churchill) did not go to university.

Without a shadow of a doubt, in my opinion, classics scholar (a term I deploy advisedly) Boris Johnson is in a league of his own as perhaps the worst Prime Minister of the lot. I admit that my Twitter feed is full of tweets from like-minded individuals. And cronyism is definitely on the rise during this Covid-19 pandemic, as analysis of the award of contracts, for example, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) has clearly indicated. What I find hard to understand is why Johnson isn’t doing worse in the polls.

Opposition parties in Parliament are there to hold the government of the day to account. But with an overall majority of more than 80, this Tory government is essentially unassailable. Yes, it has had a few wobbles when Eurosceptic Tories have voted against their own party. But with Brexit [1] out of the way, so to speak, Johnson and his cohorts essentially have unlimited licence over the next four years until the next mandated General Election to do whatever they like. And we should all be worried about that.

Taking the UK out of the European Union has already eroded a number of significant rights and privileges that membership gave all citizens of the UK. I simply don’t trust Johnson to legislate for the greater good.

So, let’s look at the last General Election.

Voter turnout was greater than 67% (of a registered electorate of more than 47.5 million). I don’t claim to have access to a significant amount of data or to be anything like an expert. These are just some of my observations that reflect my concerns about electoral reform.

Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives won 365, on a 43.6% share of the votes cast.

That means that more than 56% of the voting public supported parties other than the Conservatives. Labour’s share was 32.1%, giving them only 202 seats. The next biggest party (with just 3.9% of the national vote) was the Scottish National Party (SNP) with 48 seats, all in Scotland of course. Scotland is now an SNP monopoly after winning just a 45% share of the votes across the 59 Scottish constituencies. The Greens attracted 2.7% of the national vote but gained just a single seat. As for the Liberal Democrats, the situation was even more dire: 11.6% share of the votes resulting in only 11 seats in Parliament. No wonder the Lib Dems have long advocated a change to proportional representation.

If seats were allocated based on their share of the vote, the Conservatives would have just 283, Labour 208, and the Lib Dems, 75. I voted Lib Dem at the last election, but it was essentially a wasted vote, as would have been a vote for the Labour candidate in my constituency at the time, Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, that was retained by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, who retained his seat with a slightly increased share of the votes cast, at 63.4%.

Now in constituencies that have long enjoyed domination by one party or another, such as Conservative Bromsgrove for example or Labour-held Knowsley on Merseyside (with an almost 40,000 majority, >80% of votes cast), proportional representation is hardly likely to change that sort of result. However, where the number of votes cast per candidate is more evenly spread, and where the FPTP winner actually has a minority share of the vote, then proportional representation is going to have a much more significant effect.

How the constituencies could be re-designated to better reflect current demographics I’ll leave to others better qualified to propose. But I do believe that ‘voting areas’ should be larger than the current constituencies, say counties with each’county’ returning the same number of MPs as they do in total now. But for each there could be a slate of candidates, and the seats would be allocated by the total number of votes cast per political party (similar to how the MEP elections were held in the past). There needs to be a thorough discussion about the actual system of proportional representation, and I’m not qualified to comment on that particular aspect.

I do feel strongly that we need a House of Commons that better reflects how the UK population votes. FPTP does not do that, and given the increasing polarization in political stances and viewpoints, I think we need a more nuanced approach to policy development and implementation. Yes, I appreciate that proportional representation is likely to lead to more coalition governments. Is that such a bad thing? I personally think that the Lib Dems were right to go into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 General Election. I don’t think they had much choice given that the country was trying to rebuild itself following the 2008/2009 financial crash.

Northern Ireland First Minister (of the DUP) Arlene Foster and then Prime Minister Theresa May after the June 2017 election.

Coalitions do come with disadvantages, however as seen in some countries that take months to form new coalition governments. Small (and maybe even extreme) parties can hold the balance. Take the religious parties in Israel, or more recently in the UK where the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Conservatives following the 2017 General Election that saw then Prime Minister Theresa May lose her majority, and therefore needed the backing of a ‘friendly’ party to keep Corbyn’s Labour at bay.

Given the current state of politics in the UK I believe the call for electoral reform will become a clamour in the not-too-distant future. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.


Let me turn my attention to what’s been happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Can you imagine that American politics would ever come to this? An incumbent President defeated decisively in a general election then, even more than two months on, not accepting that defeat, and going as far as trying to subvert the outcome.

From my UK perspective, the USA seems to have a crazier electoral system than we ‘enjoy’ over here. A House of Representatives that is elected every two years (with all the financial dangers of corruption to remain in power), gerrymandering across the country (especially in Republican-held districts), the billions of dollars that are raised and spent on political campaigns, and an election of the President every four years that does not take account directly of the popular vote.

Given the role of the Electoral College, election campaigns will always focus primarily on those so-called battleground states that ultimately give the winning candidate the 270 votes needed in the Electoral College to win the race.

Let’s look at the results of the 2016 General Election in the US, won by Trump in the Electoral College by 304 votes to 227, even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes.

Here is a series of maps that show the 2016 FPTP election results for President, county by county. It’s a sea of Republican red, right across the country, but with significant Democrat concentrations on the East and West Coasts, and some parts of the Mid-West.

But does that map reflect the distribution of party allegiances? Since the USA is essentially a two party nation, Republicans and Democrats, it’s straight forward to provide a rather more nuanced visualization of how everyone voted, with shades of purple reflecting the proportion of votes for each party. (This sort of map would be harder to compile for UK election results, since there were nine parties contesting the 2019 election, albeit some were regional parties like the SNP or DUP).

Even better perhaps is the same map, county by county, that shows the votes based on population, as its author stated: ‘Land doesn’t vote. People do.’ Check the visualization here. The Republican Party is primarily rural, and in those states and counties with  rather low population densities.

It’s incredible that two months on from last November’s election, which Joe Biden won with 51.4% of the popular vote (and a margin of more than 7 million votes) that Trump is still trying to game the system. Perhaps even more incredible that Trump himself won more than 74 million votes. A country divided!

This result gave Biden 306 votes to Trump’s 232. And, since he hates losers, Trump just cannot accept that he lost the election. And keeps ranting on about it.

The Electoral College does, in the 21st century, seem an anachronism. If the votes for Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20), and Georgia (16) are discounted, then Biden and Trump would have essentially the same number of college votes, 233 to 232. No wonder Trump is futilely trying to overturn the results from these states. If just over half of the people that voted for Biden in these five states had voted the other way, Trump would remain President. That means the election was essentially determined on just under 140,000 votes. From a popular vote of over 155 million (the highest turnout in over a century), to have an election resolved by less than 0.1% of those who voted seems a shaky basis for electing someone to ostensibly the most powerful office in the world.

Trump can cry foul at every turn, that the election was stolen from him, that the Democrats cheated, the election was a fraud. Funny how fraud only occurred in states that the Democrats won. This had crossed my mind several times. Today I saw it articulated publicly. Not sure who this is. I recognise the face but can’t put a name to it. I’m sure someone will enlighten me.

We think that Johnson and his pals have brought the UK into disrepute with their handling of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Media in the EU are openly mocking this government. In the same vein, Donald Trump has eroded respect for the USA globally. Although I’m not sure the MAGA Trumpists see it that way. Poor misguided fools . . .


[1] The 2016 Brexit referendum was won by the Leave campaign on 52% of the votes cast (but only 37% of the electorate). The FPTP system really failed us on this occasion, in my opinion. For something that had such constitutional, financial, social, and political consequences the referendum rules should have been tighter. I have long argued that not only should there be a minimum turnout (it was actually quite high at 72%), but that the winning margin needed to be 50% +1 of the persons eligible to vote, not those that actually voted. We have been forced to leave the European Union on the whims of less than 40% of the electorate, a substantial number of whom now say they regret having voted that way knowing now what they didn’t then, when they were promised ‘unicorns’ and ‘sunlit uplands’.


 

There is no way you can deny it . . .

It was July 1979. I was in Santiago de Chile for a few days, as a member of a three person team from the International Potato Center (CIP) to undertake a short review of the Chilean National Potato Program.

Joining me were my Lima-based colleagues, potato breeder Dr Nelson Estrada (a Colombian national) and Regional Representative for South America, Dr Oscar Malamud (from Argentina). I’d flown in from Costa Rica where I was leading CIP’s Regional Program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at the time..

It was a chilly evening, maybe 5ºC, mid-winter in Chile; Santiago lies at 33ºS. Street vendors were roasting chestnuts on open fires. We were out and about doing some tourist shopping (in my case) or buying beef to carry back to Lima (Nelson and Oscar) in spare suitcases, as there was a meat shortage and rationing in Peru in those days.

Then, as I wondered among the shops and market stalls, I heard this song floating over the hubbub of the street:

Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong
You’re enchained by your own sorrow
In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow
How I hate to see you like this
There is no way you can deny it
I can see that you’re oh so sad, so quiet

It was ABBA, of course, and this song, Chiquitita, immediately had an impact on me. It was released as the first single from their album Voulez-Vous in January that year. But I’d not heard it until then.

Here are ABBA performing (but lip-synching) the song at the Music for UNICEF Concert that same year, after which the group donated half of the royalties to UNICEF. Being one of ABBA’s most successful recordings, those royalties must have been quite significant.

I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t really been much aware of ABBA before encountering them on that Santiago street, so to speak. I was living in Peru in 1974 when they won the Eurovision Song Contest, with Waterloo. And, never having been a Eurovision fan, and because it didn’t figure in any news that I heard in Lima, their win passed me by. Neither was glam rock my thing. I came late to the ABBA party.

Anyway, after my Chiquitita experience, I went out and purchased a vinyl copy of Voulez-Vous the next time I passed through Miami, and thereafter enjoyed dancing around the living room back home in Costa Rica with my young daughter Hannah (then approaching two) to the many excellent songs that featured on that album, such as I Have A Dream, Angeleyes, Does Your Mother Know, and Kisses of Fire.

It wasn’t until I returned to the UK in 1981 that I really became an signed-up ABBA fan, and got hold of cassette tapes of some of their albums like Arrival (later replaced by CDs of Gold and Greatest Hits Vol. 2 when I moved to the Philippines in 1991).

In early 1982, I accompanied a group of my MSc students in plant genetic resources conservation on a two week course in Israel offered by Professors Gideon Ladizinsky and Amos Dinoor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Rehovot near Tel Aviv. I’d taken several cassettes of music to enjoy during the various field trips, and my ABBA tapes were among those. I distinctly remember one of the Birmingham group, a Polish PhD student pulling my leg about my enthusiasm for ABBA’s music. But she did reluctantly have to agree that their music was quite special.

The wonderful melodies and arrangements composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the beautiful voices and harmonies between Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Just a winning combination all round. So many hits. It’s no wonder that Mamma Mia! was such a hit show (I loved the film—don’t tell anyone; I watched it twice on one Emirates flight back to Manila not long after it was released in 2008).

However, having set up Spotify the other day to play through my Amazon Echo Dot and a Bluetooth speaker, I came across the entire ABBA catalogue, and decided to shuffle play the lot. And that’s when I realised that besides the many glorious songs that ABBA released, there were just as many (maybe more), and especially the early tracks, that are simply naff. Awful. I was really rather surprised. It’s no wonder these don’t get too many plays. So let’s forget about those and luxuriate in the many catchy and incredibly well-crafted songs that are their greatest hits.

So I suppose I have to tell you what my favorite ABBA song is. So many to choose from. But the one I keep coming back to is . . . drum roll:

It was released on The Visitors album in 1981.


 

Once this Covid-19 business is over . . .

The past year has been for many the most difficult year in living memory. As I have written before, Steph and I managed to cope remarkably well with the Covid-19 restrictions, simply because we are retired (in our early 70s), and already had several hobbies to keep us occupied. We didn’t have a lifestyle that demanded regular visits to restaurants or pubs. And once we were allowed out for regular exercise, and eventually some trips further afield, we could enjoy the summer months outdoors, and even visit some of the National Trust properties that had been closed to visitors early on in the pandemic.

We even managed to sell our house in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire and move north to the North Tyneside area of Newcastle upon Tyne, where we are in the final stages of purchasing a new home. The difficulties we experienced in selling our house had little to do with the pandemic per se, rather the idiosyncrasies of the solicitors in the chain of sellers/buyers. It was a most frustrating period of our lives, but made more so by the uncertainties around the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and whether we would even be able to move.

But here we are, and looking forward—with one major reservation—to a better 2021. So let’s address that ‘reservation’ straightaway.

It’s Brexit of course! At 11 pm last night (midnight Brussels time—we couldn’t even take control of that), the United Kingdom finally left the European Union. As a committed Remainer, I thoroughly deplore the decision that was reached in the 2016 referendum. Unfortunately, a majority of those who voted (but only about 37% of the population as such) swallowed the unicorn promises and lies of those leading the Leave campaign. Now the consequences of finally leaving and what it means for this country constitutionally, socially, economically, even culturally has to be owned by those individuals (too many to mention) led by that mendacious buffoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Yes, we finally left the EU, but with a trade deal signed into law at the eleventh hour on Wednesday. But that won’t be the end of it. Far from it. It’s undoubtedly a bad deal, but it has to be better than no deal at all. It will impoverish us as a nation. We have lost so many of the advantages of EU membership. Okay. Membership was far from perfect in several respects, but we were a stronger and more influential nation by being one of the twenty eight.

That paragon of civil liberties, Home Secretary Priti Patel, loves to crow that we ended ‘free movement’. Only for ourselves, but not for citizens of the remaining 27 countries. But hey, we have one consolation: blue passports!

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has taken a lot of stick for supporting ratification of the trade deal when it came before Parliament a couple of days ago. It seems to me that he took a page out of Otto von Bismarck’s book: Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.

Personally, I don’t think he had much choice, having to play the long game. He made it clear that this was, indeed, a bad deal, and why. Because no deal would have been so much worse for the country. Maybe he could have waited to see how Boris Johnson Tory Eurosceptics were likely to vote before committing the Labour Party to vote in favor instead of abstaining or voting against. But then he ran the risk that the deal might be defeated, which would have been even more damaging to the country. I don’t think that voting for the deal will do him much damage in the long run, because he clearly spelled why the deal was such a poor option, while accepting that things have to move forward. He was between a rock and a hard place. I don’t believe that Johnson will be able to taunt him about this in the future. Starmer has the Prime Minister’s measure, after all.

Even former Prime Minister Theresa May said the deal that has just been approved was worse than the one she brought before Parliament two years ago and that was rejected. Hey ho.

Whatever lies ahead, it is important that the Tories (and all Brexiters) are held accountable for whatever goes wrong now that we have left the EU.


Let’s draw a line under Brexit, and look to the positives of 2021.

Let’s celebrate science, specifically the glorious science and the outstanding teams of scientists that has brought several vaccines to market within the space of 10 months or so. Already almost 1,000,000 people in the UK have been vaccinated using the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine, and now that the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved, it looks like a mass vaccination program will be launched from 4 January. I hope we are on the list to be vaccinated soon. Even though glitches to the program have been announced and a shortage of actual vaccine!

Hopefully mass vaccination (notwithstanding the idiotic perspectives of the anti-vaxxers) will bring this awful pandemic under control. I don’t say defeat. I believe we are a long way from that eventuality, but at least we can anticipate that life will return to some sort of normality this year. With all the opportunities of being with family once more. We moved to Newcastle to be nearer to our younger daughter and her family. But because of coronavirus, we’ve hardly seen them, and then at a safe social distance outside. We even spent an hour on Christmas morning exchanging presents around a pit fire in the garden.

Then it was home to have lunch by ourselves.

We have the first months of 2021 to look forward to as we settle into our new home, hopefully by the end of March. Then we can expect to explore the north of England further afield than we have been able to until now. And, in August, we look forward to seeing our elder daughter Hannah and her family from Minnesota over here in the UK. Since 2010 we have been making an annual visit to the USA, but that was put on hold this past year. I doubt we’ll make it in 2021. There’s just too much recovery from the pandemic needed in the USA before we would feel really safe making the journey.

But there is also hope in that respect, on the horizon when, in less than three weeks, the losing incumbent moron and Cockwomble-in-Chief in the White House, President Donald Trump has to relinquish office and make way for his successor and No. 46, Joe Biden. After four years of upheaval and frankly idiotic behaviour in someone who is supposed to be the most powerful person on the planet, sanity will return to the White House, and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Hopefully, and very quickly, the USA will begin to engage with the rest of the world, something that has been sadly absent during the Trump years.


I guess the release of Covid vaccines and the election of Joe Biden are the two main things from 2020 that give hope for 2021. My fingers are crossed. I remain an optimist (although my optimism did take a bit of battering in 2020). My glass remains half full.

 

 

 

What should I call you?

A Twitter thread caught my attention a couple of days back, about whether doctors should ever use a patient’s first name without asking permission to do so.

Dr Conor Maguire

It was by Dr Conor Maguire, a Consultant Physician in Medicine for the Elderly, at the Western General Hospital, Edinburgh as well as Vice President (International) and Director of Education at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He is dead set against using first names without permission, and explains why in the thread that you can read here.

How to address someone (certainly on first acquaintance) is something I’ve had to contend with throughout my working life. In my youth (I’m now in my early 70s) I was taught that it was impolite to use someone’s first name without their express permission. Indeed it was severely frowned on. Quite the wrong etiquette. I never called my parents’ friends by their first names. It’s different today; the younger generation is so much more relaxed about this sort of thing. Yet I still feel uncomfortable when I hear that. It’s also quite common nowadays to be addressed by one’s first name when using a utility helpline, for instance. It certainly grates with me when the young person on the end of the phone immediately addresses me as ‘Michael’. I mostly let it go; no point in having a row when you’re trying to sort out a difficulty with a bill or the like. Occasionally I have been asked by the person I’m talking to could use my name. And I almost always say yes. They’re being polite in asking.

I should add that hardly anyone calls me ‘Michael’, always ‘Mike’. I think my Mum only ever used ‘Michael’ when she really wanted to attract my attention. Uh oh, I must be in trouble, especially when ‘Michael’ was pronounced as a rising inflection, Aussie-style.


My first job at age 24 (in January 1973) was overseas in Peru with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, whose Director General, Richard Sawyer, was an American, as were several other senior members of staff.

Americans are much more relaxed about using first names, even on first acquaintance, but it took me some months before I felt at ease doing so. I don’t think I got round to calling the DG by his first name for at least a couple of years. However, I slowly came to realise that if I met someone, shook hands, and they introduced themselves by their first name, this was a tacit invitation for me to use it, and vice versa.

However, working in a multicultural institution like CIP (and later on at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, in the Philippines) it was important to be aware of different cultural norms, and that such first name familiarity is not always practiced nor welcome. At CIP there was a senior nematologist, a German named Dr Rolf Schaeffer. He must have been at least twice my age. But during the two or so years we worked alongside each other, he never ever used my first name, always addressing me as ‘Mr Jackson’!

In Asia, elders (but not necessarily one’s betters) are treated with much more respect generally than I have ever seen in the UK for example. There are many age-based honorifics in many societies. When I first joined IRRI in 1991, I found it odd that my Filipino staff always addressed me as ‘Sir’. Try as I might to get them to use my name, I eventually gave up and accepted that, for them, ‘Sir’ was a much more comfortable way to address me. However, as time passed, some of the more senior Filipino staff did ‘relax’ and call me ‘Mike’. But if they didn’t want to, that was fine as well.

DPPC staff enjoying a Christmas get-together in 2004.

When, in 2001, I was asked to develop a new Office for Program Planning and Communications, I assembled a small team of professionals to help me deliver its mandate. And, in this instance, I insisted that everyone use my first name, not ‘Sir’ or ‘Dr Jackson’. Funnily enough, there was no hesitation on their part, although one of them generally just called me ‘Boss’. After all we were a small team, working cheek by jowl, and relying on each other day in, day out.


In primary and secondary school my teachers were always ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Mr’. And when I went to university in 1967, we always, always addressed staff by their title, ‘Dr This’ or ‘Professor That’.

However, when I began graduate school at Birmingham in 1970, we affectionately addressed the head of department as ‘Prof’, rarely Professor Hawkes (unless we were referring to him when speaking to someone else), but never ‘Jack’. Yet the barriers were beginning to break down with one or two of the younger members of staff who encouraged the use of their first names. Even so, given my Britishness, I found it quite difficult, awkward even, to use a first name.

Dr Jill Biden, future FLOTUS

This issue of first name use, and titles, is actually quite topical under the circumstances, given the hoo-ha following the publication of an outrageous opinion piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 11 December last about First Lady-elect Dr Jill Biden’s use of her ‘Dr’ title (she holds an Ed.D. degree from University of Delaware).

Written by 83 year old writer Joseph Epstein, a former adjunct faculty member of the English Department at Northwestern University, and titled Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D., who questioned Dr Biden’s right to and use of her doctorate title. He even suggested that ‘Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.’ Not only that, he even called her ‘kiddo’. How disrespectful was that?

A you can imagine, this op-ed has attracted a whole lot of attention, ire, and even derision. It has been condemned by former colleagues at Northwestern. And in another opinion piece a few days later in The Atlantic, staff writer Graeme Wood wrote that use of her title was a choice for Dr Biden alone. There followed an outcry on Twitter condemning Epstein’s misogynistic comments, and in support of the future First Lady.

But I guess this begs the bigger question of whether academic titles should be used outside the academic environment. Most medical doctors in the UK do not hold a medical doctorate, generally just bachelor degrees. They use ‘Dr’ as a courtesy title. Likewise some dentists. At my former dental practice in Bromsgrove, the two partners both listed themselves as ‘Dr’ on the practice website, even though they only had a Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree. The MD degree is the norm in the USA.

So, should non-medics use their title? Why not? We’ve earned it after several years of hard slog, completed the requirements for the degree, and were awarded a doctorate by an accredited institution. I use my title, but if others prefer to call me ‘Mr’ that’s fine as well. Let’s not get hung up about this. I also use, on occasion, my OBE that was conferred by HM The Queen in 2012.

But let me get one thing straight. It’s all about respect, and sensitivity to all the different cultural norms we are exposed to daily. What is fine in one culture is almost taboo in another. Never assume that someone wants you to use their first name, or not use a well-earned title. Restraint is the watchword, until the signal is given to proceed to a more informal relationship.


 

What a year . . . !

That goes without saying . . .

2020 makes HM The Queen’s Annus Horribilis of 1992 seem like a stroll in the park.

Who would have thought, as the clock struck midnight last 31 December that we’d be facing a year of unprecedented restrictions on our daily lives. Oh, and the overuse of words such as unprecedented that have really got my goat these past Covid-19-ridden months. It seems that the politicians and pundits (and others who should know better) have employed this description for almost everything that has happened, even when, with a little more careful planning and foresight, things would not have become so unprecedented. Tell that to the victims of the fourteenth century Black Death or the1665 Great Plague in London, for example. Not to mention the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. How unprecedented were these events? And it’s not as though more recent emerging pandemics were unheard of. Take, for example, Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016, SARS in 2003, or MERS in 2012.

In the UK it’s not as if the government hadn’t been thinking about pandemic scenarios. Admittedly the thinking was geared more towards a repeat of a Spanish flu-like pandemic, not the emergence of a novel virus such as Sars-Cov-2 this past year. As recently as October 2016, the British government ran Exercise Cygnus, a cross-government exercise to test the UK’s response to a serious influenza pandemic . . .  to test systems to the extreme, to identify strengths and weaknesses in the UK’s response plans, which would then inform improvements in our resilience. Okay. So it wasn’t designed to address emerging threats. Here’s the cop out on the government’s website: Exercise Cygnus was not designed to consider other potential pandemics, or to identify what action could be taken to prevent widespread transmission. I wonder how recently that caveat was added.

Clearly the government took its collective eye off the ball, and was NOT prepared for Covid-19. I guess, since 2016, it has been more obsessed with delivering (or not) Brexit. More of that later.

But what seems clear to me at least, is that unprecedented became the catchall adjective to explain away most if not all failures or shortcomings in the government’s response to the pandemic. With the drastic consequences that has had on all our lives. Not just the restrictions, but the threats to the National Health Service and its staff, and the thousands (more than 67,000) grieving families who have lost loved ones to this insidious virus. Boris Johnson has a lot to answer for. As recently as 19 December he has had to retreat on the advice over Christmas, even though he was strongly urged much earlier by scientists and opposition politicians alike not to relax the restrictions over the Christmas period. What a fiasco!

That’s Covidiot Swayne (behind then ‘Father of the House, Ken Clarke) serving his constituents during a debate in the House of Commons.

And now, as we approach Christmas, with continual mixed messages emanating from Downing Street, a new and more infectious variant of the virus spreading alarmingly, French ports now closed to traffic from the UK, and the end of the Brexit transition on the immediate horizon, it seems we lurch from one crisis to another. The whole response to the pandemic is not helped by the misguided interventions (video) by Covidiot MPs like libertarian Sir Desmond Swayne and others of his ilk (who also happen to be fervid Brexiteers). Give me strength!

Birds of a feather – were there two more reprehensible individuals in 2020 that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump?

While the failings in the UK are plain to see, they don’t come close to the response (or should I say, lack of it) from Donald Trump and his administration. It seems to me that he and his cohorts in Congress have been criminally negligent, made worse by 2020 being a presidential election year. “Screw the victims“, Trump seemed to be saying, “2020 is all about ME!” And his lack of response can be considered even worse when you realise that his predecessor, President Obama, had set up a pandemic response unit in the White House (as a response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa and fears of its global spread), and there were also staff in China to help monitor emerging threats. But Trump being Trump and averse to anything—ANYTHING—that had Obama’s imprimatur on it, dismantled any coordinated response to Covid, with the dreadful outcome that we have observed from afar: five percent of the world’s population but more than 20% of the Covid deaths. And that’s a particular worry to Steph and me since our elder daughter Hannah and her family live in Minnesota, where Covid rates are continuing to climb. There’s been a serious uptick in infections in the Upper Mid-West.

And uptick (a term previously confined to descriptions of the financial markets, meaning an increase) is another word that got under my skin this year. Hells bells! Why not just say increase. I suppose that whoever used uptick in relation to the pandemic statistics thought they were being clever. Now it’s caught on. When can we ever expect a downtick?


Brexit. What more is there to say. Except that it continues to be a complete shambles. Already there are long queues of trucks on both sides of the Channel, some trying to beat the 31 December Brexit end of transition deadline, others caught up in the general pre-Brexit preparations ‘melee’. And now compounded by the fallout from the new SARS-CoV-2 variant.

It’s hard to believe that with less than two weeks to the deadline, there is still no agreement with Brussels. Johnson and his government of Brexit acolytes have seriously mismanaged negotiations with the EU. Words fail me, except . . .


So how have Steph and I coped with Covid? On reflection, not too bad, really. So far we have come through unscathed (touch wood!).

We began self-isolating before the official lockdown on 23 March and kept to a minimum any shopping that we had to do. In fact I ended up doing the weekly supermarket shop on my own as the supermarkets were restricting the number of customers allowed inside at any one time.

Who would try to sell a house during a pandemic? We did . . . and succeeded. What would have been a stressful at the best of times was made even more so by all the pandemic uncertainty. But we got there, leaving our home of more than 39 years on 30 September to move 230 miles north to Newcastle upon Tyne, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family.

Being retired, we already had hobbies to keep us busy, so there was really no change in our routines. Steph had her various jewelry and beading projects, and the garden. I kept blogging, combining my love of writing and photography (this is my 62nd post of the year, with more than 70,000 words). And taking, whenever the weather permitted, daily walks around Bromsgrove, mostly on my own, but accompanied by Steph when the fancy took her. And we enjoyed more BBQs than usual. Here in Newcastle we are very close to the coast and have enjoyed several bracing strolls along the magnificent beaches that line this stretch of English coast. Exploring the local byways close to our rental home has been a delight. Since we are buying a new house close by, we’ll still get chance to explore here further.

Because of the Covid restrictions we have not been able to see much of Philippa and family, apart from a visit to a country park in October, and a week ago we took the boys for a long walk in Jesmond Dene close to their home.

With Philippa, Felix, and Elvis at Plessey Woods near Cramlington on 28 October.

Enjoying hot chocolate and blueberry muffins at Jesmond Dene on 12 December.

Christmas won’t be the usual family get-together this year. We have already decided that despite the relaxation of Covid restrictions—now limited just to Christmas Day—it’s not worth the risk. We’ve come so far during 2020 in keeping ourselves safe and well. There’s no point risking everything for the sake of a few hours under the same roof, especially as there is light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccination campaign being rolled out. Hopefully we’ll both get the jab soon into the New Year; I think, being in our early 70s, we will be in the fourth priority (though who knows with this government?)


It only remains for me to wish you all . . .

Take care. Keep safe.

Remember . . .


 

Of mythical beasts and Pre-Raphaelites

In July 2013, during one of our regular trips to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast England to visit our younger daughter Philippa and her family, we headed out into the Northumberland countryside to the National Trust’s Wallington, a late 17th century house west of Morpeth (map).

Since we moved to Newcastle a couple of months ago, we have taken advantage of many fine days to get out and about. And last Monday (14 December) we headed to Wallington once again. After a welcome cup of Americano, we enjoyed a walk of just under four miles around the grounds. The house was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, like most if not all National Trust properties nationwide.


Sir William Blackett (c.1657-1705), by Enoch Seeman the younger; National Trust, Wallington

The Wallington estate was purchased in 1688 by Sir William Blackett (1657-1705) who came from a prosperous Newcastle mining and shipping family. He demolished the existing Fenwick family tower on the site (parts of which can still be seen apparently, in the basement), and Wallington became a country retreat. It underwent further developments, gaining its Palladian facade in the 18th century.

In 1777, Wallington passed to the Trevelyan family who continued to reside there until 1941. Then the 3rd Baronet (of the second, Wallington creation of 1874), Sir Charles Trevelyan, gave Wallington to the National Trust and, in the process, disinheriting his eldest son George (the 4th Baronet). [1]


Approaching Wallington, there are two features which stand out. In the valley below the house the River Wansbeck flows eastwards towards the North Sea. There is a beautifully constructed hump-back bridge over the Wansbeck, which from its architecture must date from around the time that Wallington was redeveloped in the 18th century.

The second feature, and close to the house on a lawn overlooking the approaching road B6342, is a group of four stone dragon heads (or some other mythical creature, perhaps griffins), lined up and glaring (or grinning—take your pick) over the Northumberland countryside.

They were brought to Wallington in the 1730s as ballast in one of Sir Walter Calverley-Blackett‘s ships. Presumably he was shipping coal to the capital. Anyway, from what I have been able to discover, these dragon heads came from Bishopsgate in London after it was demolished to make way for the increase in London traffic. They have been in their current location since 1928.


Like many country houses, Wallington has its fair share of treasures displayed by the National Trust in the many rooms, which we enjoyed during our 2013 visit.

But, for me, the pièce de résistance is the central hall, once an open courtyard that was enclosed (at the insistence of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founding member John Ruskin) by Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, wife of the 6th Baron Trevelyan of Nettlecombe, Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan (a renowned naturalist and geologist) who bequeathed Wallington to his cousin, Sir Charles Trevelyan (created the 1st Baron Trevelyan of Wallington in 1874).

From this satellite image from Google maps you can see the original layout of the house, and the enclosed central courtyard.

Wallington became a retreat for the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom, William Bell Scott, a Newcastle painter and poet, was commissioned to decorate the central hall with a series of exquisite murals depicting scenes from Northumbrian history and folklore (and often incorporating local personalities into these). I recently wrote a separate piece about Scott.

I shall enjoy returning to Wallington as soon as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and it’s once again safe to make such visits inside (and after receiving one of the vaccines).


But there’s so much more to see and appreciate at Wallington, since the woods, garden, and park are quite extensive. Last week we re-explored the East Wood and ponds, and the walled garden, before heading down to the Wansbeck which could not be crossed at the stepping stones due to the high water level.

We didn’t complete the full river walk, heading back up the B6342 from the bridge back to the house, and then into the woods on the west side of the house.

The south front of the house is protected by a rather impressive ha-ha – somewhat more formidable than others we have seen at the likes of Hanbury Hall (in Worcestershire close to our former home in Bromsgrove) and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, for example.

The walled garden, some minutes walk from the house was splendid during our July visit, but had bedded down for its winter sleep a few days ago. Surrounded by red brick walls, mirroring an even more impressive wall just outside the garden and overlooking the garden pond, it never ceases to amaze me just how much these landowners and would-be aristocrats spent on improving their properties.

Because Steph and I are retired, we can take advantage of good weather (and sometimes not so good) to drop everything and head off to glorious properties like Wallington. And although there are perhaps fewer owned by the National Trust here in the northeast, we shall just have to travel a little further afield and visit those parts of northern England that we have not yet had chance to explore more fully yet. Added to the properties of English Heritage, we will have more than enough to fill our retirement for several years to come.


[1] In summer 1966 (or maybe late Spring 1967) I met Sir George Trevelyan at Attingham Park near Shrewsbury, when I attended a weekend course on the reclamation and botanical rehabilitation of industrial waste sites. Sir George was, for many years, the warden of the Adult Education College at Attingham Park, which is now owned and managed by the National Trust, and has been considerably restored internally and externally since the late 1960s.


 

I was doctored . . . but the benefits were long-lasting

Philosophiae Doctor. Doctor of Philosophy. PhD. Or DPhil in some universities like Oxford. Doctorate. Hard work. Long-term benefits.

Forty-five years ago today I was awarded a PhD by the University of Birmingham. As a freshman undergraduate at the University of Southampton in October 1967, I was naïvely ignorant of what a PhD was [1]. And I certainly never had any ambition then or inkling that one day I would go on to complete a doctorate in botany. Let alone a study on potatoes!

Although registered for my PhD at the University of Birmingham, I actually carried out much of the research while working as an Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. My thesis was supervised by eminent potato experts Professor Jack Hawkes, head of the Department of Botany (later Plant Biology) in the School of Biological Sciences at Birmingham, and Dr Roger Rowe, head of CIP’s Department of Breeding & Genetics.

Jack Hawkes (L) and Roger Rowe (R)

On 12 December 1975 I was joined at the Birmingham graduation ceremony or congregation by Jack and Dr Trevor Williams (on my left below, who supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils). Trevor later became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International). I’d turned 27 just a few weeks earlier, quite old in those days when it wasn’t all that unusual for someone to be awarded a PhD at 24 or 25, just three years after completing a bachelor’s degree. My research took four years however, from 1971, when I was awarded the MSc degree in genetic resources conservation at Birmingham.

The moment of being ‘doctored’ in the university’s Great Hall.

Sir Peter Scott, CH, CBE, DSC & Bar, FRS, FZS (by Clifton Ernest Pugh, 1924–1990)

As a biologist, it was particularly special that my degree was conferred by one of the most eminent naturalists and conservationists of his age, Sir Peter Scott (son of ill-fated Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott), who was Chancellor of the University of Birmingham for a decade from 1973.


According to the Birmingham PhD degree regulations today, a candidate must enter on a programme, normally of three years’ duration, in which the key activity is undertaking research, combined with appropriate training. Registered students must produce a thesis which makes an original contribution to knowledge, worthy of publication in whole or in part in a learned journal.

It was much the same back in the 1970s, except that we had eight years from first registration to submit a thesis. By the end of the 1980s this had already been reduced to four years.

Like the majority of PhD theses I guess, mine (The evolutionary significance of the triploid cultivated potato, Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk.) was a competent piece of original research, but nothing to write home about. However, I did fulfil the other important criterion for award of the degree as three scientific papers from my thesis research were later accepted for publication in Euphytica, an international journal of plant breeding:

  1. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783. PDF

  2. Jackson, MT, PR Rowe & JG Hawkes, 1978. Crossability relationships of Andean potato varieties of three ploidy levels. Euphytica 27, 541-551. PDF

  3. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113. PDF


It took me just over six weeks to write my thesis of about 150 pages. I achieved that by sticking to a well-defined daily schedule. I was under a tight time constraint.

Having returned from Peru at the beginning of May 1975, I still had a couple of things to wrap up: checking the chromosome numbers of some progeny from experimental crosses, then preparing all the hand drawn diagrams and maps (fortunately my cartographic skills from my geography undergraduate days at the University of Southampton placed me in good stead in this respect) and photographs. My thesis was typed on a manual typewriter; none of that fancy word processing and formatting available today. Nevertheless, I did submit my thesis by the mid-September deadline to meet the December graduation. I could hardly return to CIP by the beginning of the New Year without a PhD in my back pocket.

Looking at my thesis 45 years on, it does seem rather ‘thin’ compared to what PhD students can achieve today. In the early 1970s we didn’t have any of the molecular biology techniques that have become routine (essential even) today, to open up a whole new perspective on plant diversity, crop evolution, and crop domestication that were the basic elements of my thesis research.

Back in the day, it was normal for a PhD thesis to be examined by just one external examiner and an internal university one, usually from a candidate’s department and often the person who had supervised the research. Today the supervisor cannot be the internal examiner at many if not all universities in the UK, and it has become more common for a PhD student to have a committee to oversee the research.

So, towards the end of October 1975 I met with my examiners for what turned out to be a viva voce of over three hours. It got off to a good start because the external examiner told me he had enjoyed reading my thesis. That allowed me to relax somewhat, and we then embarked on an interesting discussion about the work, and potatoes and their evolution in general. The examiner found just one typographical error, and I corrected that immediately after the viva. I then sent the thesis for binding and official submission to the university library (where it languishes on a shelf somewhere, or maybe reduced to just a microfilm copy).


On the evening of my examination I rang my parents to tell them the good news, only to discover that my dad had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day. That certainly but a damper on the exhilaration I felt at having just passed my final exam – ever! Dad was resting, but expected to make a full recovery. By December, when the congregation was held, he was back on his feet, and he and mum attended the congregation. Having been allocated only two guest tickets, Steph gave hers up so mum and dad could attend.

They gave me a Parker fountain pen, engraved with my name and date, as a graduation present. I still have it.


So, I completed a PhD. Was it worth it? I actually waxed lyrical on that topic in a blog post published in October 2015. When the idea of working in Peru was first mooted in February 1971, it was intended to be just a one year assignment from September. Registering for a PhD was not part of the equation. But circumstances changed, my departure to Peru was delayed until January 1973, so Jack registered me for a PhD, setting me on a path that I have never regretted.

In any case, once I was established at CIP in Lima, I quickly came to the viewpoint that a career in international agricultural research was something I wanted to pursue. And without a PhD under my belt that would have been almost impossible. The PhD degree became a sort of ‘union card’, which permitted me to work subsequently in Central America, as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham for a decade, and almost 19 years up to my retirement in 2010 at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in roles managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, and then as one of the institute’s senior management team.


[1] Unlike our two daughters Hannah and Philippa. They grew up in a home with parents having graduate degrees (Steph has an MSc degree in genetic resources from Birmingham). And when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, almost every neighbor of ours at IRRI Staff Housing had a PhD degree. So although it was never inevitable, both went on to complete a PhD in psychology (although different branches of the discipline) in 2006 and 2010 respectively, at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

L (top and bottom): Phil, Hannah, and Steph after the graduation ceremony; Hannah with her cohort of graduands, Emily and Michael in Industrial & Organizational Psychology on 12 May 2006. R (top and bottom): Phil’s graduation at Northumbria University on 11 December 2010.

Memories of Christmas past . . . and building new ones

Perhaps nothing awakens memories filed at the back of the ol’ grey matter like decorating a Christmas tree each year. And Sunday last we finished decorating ours, for our first Christmas in Newcastle upon Tyne, having moved here from Worcestershire just over two months ago.

We’ve had this particular (artificial) tree for 44 years. After we moved to Costa Rica in April 1976, we bought this tree from Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Miami as part of our airfreight consignment.

Our elder daughter Hannah was born in Costa Rica  in April 1978, and we had great fun decorating the tree for her. I’m sure we must have some photos taken during those days, but they must be packed away in boxes waiting for a move early next year into the house we are buying. And I hadn’t scanned those yet. Likewise of our younger daughter Philippa who was born in May 1982.

However, here is one photo taken at Christmas 1981 in the UK (when Hannah would have been just over 3½ and Steph was pregnant with Philippa; we replaced those curtains and carpet that came with the house not long afterwards!). During the 80s we spent at least two Christmases with Steph’s parents in Essex, and on another two we joined family (including my widowed mother) at my brother Martin’s home in Gloucestershire, and with my sister in Newport in South Wales in 1986. This was a big family get-together as my late brother Edgar and his wife Linda (and young son Patrick) came over from Canada.

L-R Back row: Brother-in-law Trevor, Mum, Steph; middle row: sister-in-law Linda, nephew Alex, Martin, nephew Bruce, Margaret; front row: sister-in-law Pauline, Edgar (with Patrick on his knee), me, Philippa, and Hannah.


We enjoyed decorating our little tree from Costa Rica every Christmas until 1991. In July that year, I moved to the Philippines. Steph, Hannah and Philippa (then aged 13 and 9) celebrated Christmas in the UK on their own, then packed everything away, locked up the house, and flew out to join me in the Philippines a few days afterwards. The tree remained packed away for the next 18 years.

But come December 2010 (after I had retired and we moved back to the UK), we ‘rescued’ our tree from obscurity in the attic. Newly-married Philippa and Andi joined us in Bromsgrove, almost a ‘White Christmas’; there was snow lying in the garden but it didn’t actually snow on Christmas Day (to qualify as a ‘White Christmas’). In fact, throughout my whole life I can remember only one ‘White Christmas’; more of that later.

The last Christmas Day we spent in Bromsgrove was in 2017, because in 2018 and 2019 we were with Phil and Andi—and the grandchildren Elvis and Felix—in Newcastle. Having grandchildren around certainly brings a new dimension to celebrating Christmas. Unfortunately we’ve not yet had an opportunity to celebrate Christmas with our other grandchildren, Callum and Zoë in Minnesota, but we always link up on a video call and become immersed in their excitement as they open presents.


We spent almost 19 years in the Philippines. Filipinos know how to celebrate Christmas, beginning in September (the first of the ‘ber’ months) and often continuing well into February. It’s trees and lights and glitter everywhere. And their special Christmas lights, the parols.

We took one back to the UK in 2010 and proudly displayed it in our porch (probably the only one in Bromsgrove!) every year until it finally gave up its electrical ghost around three years ago. Just seeing it light up brought back memories of so many happy years spent in the Philippines, and the wonderful friends we made.

Now while Filipinos celebrate Christmas in a BIG way—Santa, snow, trees and the like—the Philippines reality is quite different. For me, it was shorts and t-shirts on Christmas Day, even if smarter ones than usual. Even after they had gone away to university in the USA and the UK, Hannah and Philippa returned most Christmases (and we’d even go scuba diving). Hannah’s boyfriend (now husband) Michael came on two occasions as well. Given the size of our IRRI house, we had space for a much taller (almost 7 foot) tree than we could ever accommodate in England. And we still have many of the decorations that we acquired in the Philippines.


One of my important roles during the 2000s, was being Santa for the Staff Housing children and friends at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños.


In 2007, I thought it might be a good idea to spend Christmas with Hannah and Michael in St Paul, Minnesota. Before doing anything else, I checked if seats were available for the Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) flight on the Northwest Airlines on Christmas Eve, and made reservations. Only then did I ask Hannah if we could visit, provided that Steph was up to the idea. Hannah thought that would be a great idea. So then I asked Steph if she would like to spend Christmas in Minnesota, provided of course that Hannah and Michael agreed. No-one knew I’d already made reservations. It took Steph a couple of days to warm to the idea (she’s not over-fond of intercontinental flights), but at last everything was in place and I confirmed the tickets.

We flew out of Manila on an early morning flight to MSP via Tokyo’s Narita airport, and arrived at our destination just before midday on the same day (Minnesota is 14 hours behind the Philippines).

It was cold, many degrees below 0ºC. A major snow storm had passed through just a few hours before our arrival, but the main highways had already been cleared. We headed straight to the Mall of America to buy some warm clothes for Steph. Since I had to travel in the course of my work with IRRI, and in all seasons, I already had suitable clothing.

There was deep snow everywhere, and as we sat down to eat our Christmas lunch at about 3pm on Christmas Day, it began to snow. My first ‘White Christmas’. We just had to go outside and enjoy the moment.

We had a great time with Hannah and Michael. Phil even joined us by video link from the UK. Seven days passed all too quickly and before we knew it we were on the return flight to Manila, from the frozen North to the heat of the tropics in less than 24 hours.


I was born in Congleton in southeast Cheshire in November 1948. I don’t really remember anything about Christmases (or winters) spent in Congleton, except the communal sledging in the snow that children from the neighbourhood enjoyed in Priesty Fields close by to where we lived in Moody Street. We moved to Leek, 12 miles away, in Staffordshire in April 1956 when I was seven.

Family Christmases with Mum and Dad, and my elder brothers Martin and Edgar, and sister Margaret were enjoyable as far as I recall. Mum and Dad were very hospitable and there always seemed to one group of friends or another spending time with us.

Dad had his own photographic business that provided a sufficient income to keep us fed and clothed. I never recall having to do without, but I now know that things were very tight and difficult financially for my parents for many years.

But as you can see from these photos, we did have fun.

And there were always a few presents. Among my favorites were a toy farm and the beginnings of a collection of plastic farm animals. I played with those for hours. It was never given away after I grew up and left home. So, in 1981, it came back home to me and was enjoyed by Hannah and Philippa. In fact, it was only last Christmas that I decided to give it away, and advertised it on the Bromsgrove Freecycle site. Within an hour it had been ‘claimed’ by someone who wanted a present for her younger sister. It’s good to know that another generation is enjoying it.

Then, one year I asked for a globe just like the one shown in this photo. It must have been the late 50s or early 60s. I kept that globe until 2010. I’m not sure why now, but we took it to the Philippines, and it was used by the girls. I decided to give it away before returning to the UK.

Each Christmas, we lived in hope of one special present each. A comic Annual. My brothers and I had a weekly subscription to the Eagle and Swift comics. I think Margaret had one for Girl. Anyway, each year, there would be an Eagle Annual and a Swift Annual waiting at the bottom of our beds. Who remembers Dan Dare? What a joy!

Rupert Bear Annual for 1960

And there was one more; Rupert Bear. Rupert first appeared as a cartoon strip in the British tabloid newspaper the Daily Express in November 1920, and continues a century on. Periodically we would receive one of the softback Rupert books, but we always looked forward as well to the Rupert Annual at Christmas, which has been published since 1936.

Such happy memories. And now that we have moved north to Newcastle, so many more opportunities to build plenty more as Elvis and Felix grow up. However, we will have to spend Christmas 2020 on our own even though the government will relax the Covid-19 restrictions for five days from Christmas Eve. We have decided to remain self-isolated. As I write this story, the first Covid vaccinations are being given in the UK. We can wait a few months more to make sure we are safe. It will be a virtual Christmas this year. But memorable, nevertheless.


 

Pandemic books – my 2020 reading list

2020 started where 2019 had ended – half way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-1872). That was a bit of a struggle in places, but I finally got there. And, on reflection, I did quite enjoy it.

Feeling at a loss as to what to turn to, I decided to quickly devour a couple of Arnold Bennett novels. Last year, I’d downloaded the ‘complete works’ to my Kindle.

First it was The Pretty Lady (1918) set at the outset of the First World War in 1914, and progressing through the war years as protagonist Gilbert (GJ) Hoade, a fiftyish bachelor of independent means, progresses in his relationship with French courtesan Christine who escaped to London from the German Army advancing on Ostend in Belgium.

Then it was back to the Five Towns at the end of January for The Price of Love (1914), a tale of lost money.

I finished that by mid-February, so decided to return to George Eliot and Daniel Deronda (1876). But I didn’t get very far. I’d been listening to some fine music on Classic FM one morning while lying in bed drinking my early morning cuppa, when I began to ask myself questions abut the development of music.

That got me into Howard Goodall‘s The Story of Music, that I finished at the beginning of April.

Then I decided to tackle the two books by Hilary Mantel about Tudor Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell that both won the Man Booker Prize (in 2009 and 2012, respectively): Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In March she published the last part of her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, but because of the library closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I wasn’t able to get hold of it. Until later in the year.

During the pandemic I had expected to read more. But by the beginning of May I’d run out of steam. So it took me almost two months to finish re-reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar. It was fascinating to understand something about perhaps the greatest Roman (often based on his own words, as he was a prolific writer, ever keen to make sure his place in history was secure). I bought this book around 2007, and first read it while I was working in the Philippines.

Here’s a review that appeared in The Independent when the book was first published in 2006. It’s not an easy read, and I found myself constantly confused by Roman names, as so many individuals had the same or similar name. I couldn’t help being reminded of the Biggus Dickus scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Anyway, during the first week of July as we were preparing to move to Newcastle upon Tyne once our house sale has completed, I decided to return to the novels of Thomas Hardy, which I had first enjoyed in the 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica. A re-run of the 2008 adaptation by David Nicholls of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was screened on BBC4, so I decided to tackle that novel first to see just how true to the original the screenwriter had stayed. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t find Tess as easy a read as I had imagined. Somehow, Tess just didn’t click with me this time round. Maybe it was because I had so much on my mind. During August and September things were becoming rather fraught with regard to our house sale and move. I wasn’t sleeping well at all. Feeling anxious and stressed all day, every day.

Anyway, I eventually finished Tess and on 30 September the sale of our house went through and we moved north. Settling into our new home (a rental for six months until we found a house to buy – which we have), we registered with the local North Tyneside library, just ten minutes from home. And there, on the new books shelf was Hilary Mantel’s magnum opus, and the last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Highly tipped to take the 2020 Booker Prize, The Mirror & the Light didn’t even make the shortlist.

Much as I enjoyed The Mirror & the Light, I don’t think it was the masterpiece that The Guardian reviewer Stephanie Merritt claimed. It was a long read, just over 900 pages. I think Hilary Mantel was being somewhat self-indulgent. She does have an accessible writing style, and although it took me over three weeks to finish, I almost never felt as if I was struggling with the text. It was only when she had her main protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, reminiscing in his own mind that the pace of the novel tapered off.

I finished The Mirror & the Light just before we went into our second national lockdown at the beginning of November, so I hurriedly returned it to the library, and searched for a couple of local histories. The first of these was Tyneside – A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, by Alistair Moffat and George Rosie, published in 2005 (and made into a TV documentary, which I haven’t seen).

This was an ambitious history of the Tyneside region over the past 10,000 years. Ambitious, indeed! But remarkably accessible, with usefully placed boxes which went into greater detail on aspects related to the main narrative. Often, boxes such as these can be a distraction from the narrative, pulling the reader from the points at hand. But the authors have cleverly drafted their text such that the narrative came to a sort of conclusion just before a box, and picked up again afterwards.

I certainly have a better appreciation of the origins and history of Newcastle, and look forward to exploring over the coming years, especially those relating to the Roman occupation of the region between AD43 and AD410.

Next, I picked up A Man Most Driven, by Peter Firstbrook, about ‘Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America’ in the early seventeenth century. Now, I’d heard about Captain Smith since I was a child. Just the other day I talking (via Zoom) about him and Pocahontas with my 8 year old grandaughter, Zoë, in Minnesota, just as I was getting into Firstbrook’s biography. Zoë had been reading all about Pocahontas for one of her remote schooling assignments, and reminded me that Pocahontas did not marry Captain Smith (as I actually believed), but another Englishman named John Rolfe.

A Man Most Driven is a fascinating story of a really driven man who, from his own (and very possibly exaggerated) accounts had certainly had some scrapes all before he was thirty, and lucky to escape with his life on more than one occasion. It also describes how close, and many times the Jamestown colony came to failure, and Smith’s role (from his own and some independent accounts) in ensuring the early survival.

Did Pocahontas (a daughter of the paramount chief of the Powhatan, named Wahunsenacawh) really save his life as Smith wrote in his The Generall Historie? She was just a young teenager when this happened just as Smith was about to have his brains bashed out by hostile Powhatan tribe members near the early Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia. After marrying John Rolfe, Pocahontas came to English and was presented to Queen Anne (wife of James I & VI). But she took sick before she could return to America and died (aged about 21) in Gravesend where she was buried. Unfortunately the site of her grave has been lost.

I then turned my attention to local Newcastle history once again, by former Northumberland county court judge and one-time MP for Newcastle Central from 1945-1951), Lyall Wilkes called Tyneside Portraits. It’s a short anthology of eight men who contributed to the artistic and cultural life of Newcastle since the seventeenth century, as well as its physical appearance through the buildings they designed and built. Among them was William Bell Scott, and Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet whose exquisite murals grace the walls of the central hall at Wallington Hall near Morpeth in Northumberland, a National Trust property we visited in August 2013.

This was the third and last book I had borrowed from the local library before the most recent pandemic lockdown and then Tier 3 restrictions locally. The library has not yet re-opened and I was unable to replace these books. So it was back to the Kindle and a touch of Rudyard Kipling once again: The Light That Failed, first published in January 1891 (his first novel, and not critically acclaimed).

With a number of things to occupy me during December (including my daily walk whenever the weather permits) I reckon The Light That Failed will see me through to the end of the month. I’ll include a summary in my 2021 reading list compilation a year from now.

So that’s another year’s reading accomplished. And what a year 2020 has been. Who could have imagined, as the clock was about to strike midnight on 31 December last, just what we would be facing in the coming months. We’ve made it through the pandemic so far, and having access to books, good music of every genre, and daily fresh air have been key to that achievement.

Keep safe. And let’s hope for a better 2021.


 

Donald’s legacy: impeached AND a loser!

Whatever he continues to wildly claim, Donald Trump’s tenure of the US presidency will come to an end at midday on Wednesday 20 January 2021. And the nightmare of the past four years that has blighted the lives of millions of Americans, and even more people around the world, will finally come to an end.

Donald Trump will be consigned to the history books, and hopefully we can begin to forget all about him. Although I fear he’s not going to go quietly, and it’s rumoured he will even try to stage a comeback in 2024.

But whatever transpires, there are two important aspects of his legacy that will forever be linked with the name of Donald J Trump: impeached (though not convicted) and loser! I’m sure he finds the latter especially galling, since this is something for which he has shown particular derision (such as his obnoxious statements about the late Arizona Senator John McCain¹ and other war veterans).

But there’s something about Trump’s character (among so many flaws) that sticks in my throat, and is typical of so many bullies. His demand for total respect while denigrating others, and above all, showing disrespect for the Office of President of the United States itself. Time and again he has shown just what an appalling human being he is. Just watch him slap down a reporter recently who asked a perfectly reasonable and appropriate question.

And while we are talking about losing, there’s a nice piece in today’s The Guardian here in the UK. I love this particular sentence: For a man obsessed with winning, Donald Trump is losing a lot.

So while Trump has the opportunity of causing a great deal of mischief—damage even—during his remaining days in office, we can all look forward to 20 January (we’ll be counting down to noon) when he will no longer be Cockwomble-in-Chief, just an also ran cockwomble.

Oh were it possible to get rid of his British counterpart Boris Johnson and his party of inept and seemingly corrupt Tories. We live in hope.


¹ Trump remained fixated on McCain, one of the few prominent Republicans to continue criticizing him after he won the nomination. When McCain died, in August 2018, Trump told his senior staff, according to three sources with direct knowledge of this event, ‘We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral,’ and he became furious, according to witnesses, when he saw flags lowered to half-staff. ‘What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser,’ the president told aides. From a September 2020 article in The Atlantic by editor Jeffrey Goldberg.

There were three persons in his marriage – William Bell Scott’s ménage à trois

I’ve just finished reading Tyneside Portraits, a 1971 book written by Lyall Wilkes (1914-1991), former MP (1945-1951) for Newcastle Central and a county court judge for Northumberland.

It’s a collection of essays about eight men (!) who had a profound on the cultural and artistic life of Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as its physical makeup. They were painters, silversmiths, engravers, architects, and an author.

Among the eight was Edinburgh-born William Bell Scott (1811-1890)—painter, poet, and Pre-Raphaelite—who became principal of the School of Art in Newcastle for two decades from 1843. When I was half way through this particular chapter I realised that I knew about William Bell Scott, at least had personally seen some of his work, although from the outset had not drawn the connection.

Pauline, Lady Trevelyan

Anyone who has visited Wallington Hall that lies 12 miles west of Morpeth in Northumberland will know exactly what I’m referring to. Between 1856 and 1861 Scott painted a series of murals on the walls of what had been the central courtyard at Wallington. Victorian art critic and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin had persuaded Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, first wife of the 6th Baronet to enclose this space with a roof.

What’s particularly interesting about these murals is that local personalities, including Lady Trevelyan, are depicted in some. Indeed, painter Alice Boyd, Scott’s former pupil who became his longtime ‘companion’ figures in the scene of Northumberland heroine Grace Darling.

Alice Boyd (L) and Christina Rossetti (R)

Now I say ‘companion’; the relationship was undoubtedly more intimate. Scott had, apparently, a natural attraction for women. At a relatively young age he married Letitia Norquoy, whom he treated shabbily for the rest of their married life. In 1847, Scott became acquainted with the Rossetti family in London, after receiving a letter from a young Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His sister Christina, also a renowned poet, fell in love with Scott. It was more than two years after they became acquainted that the Rossetti family discovered that Scott was already married. It seems Christina pined all her adult life for a relationship that could never be, although she did visit on occasion with Scott and his wife, and the significant other, Alice Boyd. As Princess Diana once famously said: “There were three persons in this marriage“. Scott lived openly with Alice Boyd for more than 30 years, and she and Letitia became friends.