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 is 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.


 

No longer carrying coals to Newcastle*

Steph and I moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne at the beginning of October, leaving Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and the West Midlands far behind. Just under 230 miles behind, in fact.

We have a six month rental on a nice house in the Shiremoor district of the city (North Tyneside Council) while we wait for the purchase of our new home to go through. We were fortunate to find somewhere to buy very soon after we made the move. Let’s hope the whole transaction goes more smoothly than did the sale of our Bromsgrove house.


And already we are enjoying getting to know the immediate surrounding area, and a little further afield, although the current Covid-19 lockdown restrictions don’t permit us to travel very far. We are fortunate that one of the closest beaches, at Seaton Sluice, is just 10 minutes away by car, and we have already enjoyed several walks between there and Blyth (a couple of miles or so north along the beach), to Cresswell and Druridge Bay somewhat further north, part way along a wooded valley known as Holywell Dene, to Plessey Woods with the grandchildren and, a few weeks back (before the latest lockdown came into force), we revisited the National Trust’s Cragside, a magnificent Victorian mansion that was built on the open moors near Rothbury in Northumberland.


Since my retirement in 2010, I took to walking almost everyday, weather permitting, as a replacement for the badminton I used to play regularly in the previous decade in Los Baños in the Philippines. As I have written in many blog posts, Walking with my mobile, I explored Bromsgrove and the surrounding district. I tried to walk at least a couple of miles each time (sometimes further), but for a minimum of 45 minutes as recommended. Not that I always achieved that.

Anyway, I did wonder what the walking would be like here in the northeast, close to home. And I haven’t been disappointed. What a delight! There’s a rich legacy of an important industrial past, a heritage in fact.

Heavy industry, and the economic wellbeing of this area north and south of the River Tyne were, for centuries, dependent on the mining of coal (‘black gold’), and the various quays along the river became among the most important in the world for the export of coal, much of it going south to warm the houses of the metropolis, London. But also further afield.

The Northumberland and Durham Coalfields (north and south of the Tyne) are one and the same larger coalfield, often referred to as the Great Northern Coalfield. And the area northeast of Newcastle city center, where we are currently living, is dotted with former coal mines and spoil heaps. But they have, to all intents and purpose, disappeared from the landscape. Mines were closed up to 40 years ago, and the pithead infrastructure was mostly demolished. Only in a few places do any building survive. Spoil heaps were flattened, the landscape rehabilitated, and these open spaces allocated for building, or parks like the Silverlink Biodiversity Park that is just a mile from our home.

But what is more remarkable—and I’m going to have to do more research and blog more extensively in the future—is the network of paths, 150 miles of them in North Tyneside alone that have become not only an important recreation and leisure amenity for everyone to enjoy (walking, cycling, and horse riding) but they are important biodiversity corridors into the city with many bird species, and mammals such as deer, rabbits, and hares. I’ve not seen any deer or hares yet, but rabbits and many bird species are quite common.

So why all these paths? Well, they are the disused trackbeds of railways built to haul the coal from the collieries north of the River Tyne down to the coal wharfs (or staithes), where it was loaded on to waiting ships. These paths are called waggonways.

Each mine or colliery built its own. Originally coal trucks ran on wooden rails. With the development of steam power, engine houses were built to lower and raise sets of wagons to the river, attached to cables. At the beginning of the 20th century these were replaced by steam locomotives that ran up and down the waggonways with their full load to the staithes, and empty on the return journey back to the mines. These photos were taken along the Cramlington Waggonway, which is the closest to home, less than a quarter of a mile.

I need to find so much more about the waggonways and the history of coal mining in this area. That should keep me busy for quite some time. In the meantime, we shall enjoy exploring these unique routes through the city, and the biodiversity that they harbor.


Much as we are enjoying walking along the waggonways, I have to mention the wanton and I guess mostly lazy littering that we have noticed along the paths. But some quite deliberate as I saw a bag of household waste tossed into the bushes. Much of the litter comprises used beer cans or plastic water bottles, some plastic bags. But, in these Covid times, also an increasing number of disposable face masks.

Now whether littering on this scale is endemic in the ‘local culture’ so to speak or, because of the pandemic, North Tyneside Council is unable to deploy workers to clear up the litter, I have no idea. But it is a sad reflection on a certain section of the local community that they feel they can pollute these environments in the way they do.


* The saying ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ means to do or bring something superfluous or unnecessary, and has been in use since at least the 1500s. So what is its basis? As a major coal-exporting town, it would have been a worthless endeavor to try and sell coal from outside the local coalfields in Newcastle itself. And so, the saying gained a wider currency signifying something unnecessary.


 

Combatting jet lag for job interviews across the globe

I started my first job on 1 January 1973. I retired (at 61) on 30 April 2010, after more than 37 years continuous employment. All but ten years were spent working abroad, in South and Central America, and in Asia. I also got to travel to more than 60 countries in the course of my work in international agricultural research and academia.

I’ve held five different positions in three organizations: the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima, Peru); the University of Birmingham; and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, in the Philippines). However, I was interviewed for just two of those five positions, although during the course of my career I have flown all over the world for at least three other job interviews, none of which were successful as there always seemed to be an ‘internal candidate’ waiting in the wings. And in all cases, I had to combat jet lag to a greater or lesser extent all the while. You run on adrenaline and a certain degree of sang froid through the interviews [1].


Jack Hawkes

My first job at CIP, as an Associate Taxonomist, came about almost by chance. In September 1970 I had enrolled on a one year MSc course on plant genetic resources conservation and use in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. The head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, was an internationally-renowned potato expert and one of the pioneers of the 1960s genetic conservation movement. Just before Christmas that year he set off for a two month wild potato collecting trip to Bolivia, calling at CIP in Lima to seek some logistical help with the expedition. It was during that visit to CIP that the Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer mentioned that he wanted to send one of his young staff to the Birmingham course in September 1971. And did Jack know anyone who could come to CIP, for just one year, to help look at after the center’s growing germplasm collection of native Andean potato varieties (of which there are thousands).

On returning to the UK at the end of February 1971, Jack phoned me within a day of his return, and mentioned the position at CIP, and asked if I would be interested. I had no hesitation in saying an emphatic Yes! I’d always wanted to visit Peru, and having a position, albeit short-term, in genetic resources conservation was almost too good to be true.

Things didn’t go exactly to plan. There was a delay, while CIP negotiated with the UK government through the Overseas Development Administration (or was it Ministry of Overseas Development back in the day). My travel to Peru was put on hold, but I did register for and begin studies on potatoes towards a PhD in botany.

Richard Sawyer

Sometime during 1972 (I don’t remember exactly when) Richard Sawyer visited Birmingham, and I had an opportunity to sit down with him and Jack to discuss my posting in Lima. By then it had been agreed that it would be longer than just one year, and that I’d stay there long enough to complete the research for my PhD. I must have said all the right things, since Sawyer agreed to this arrangement. What I can say is that it wasn’t a formal interview as such. He had a habit of meeting prospective candidates around the world, often in airports, and deciding there and then if he wanted to hire them.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I flew to Lima on 4 January 1973 and remained there until April 1975, when I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my PhD and to submit my thesis. But before returning to the UK, I met with Sawyer concerning my future ambitions with CIP. And he made me an offer to move into CIP’s Outreach Program (later Regional Research) provided I successfully defended my thesis.

I was back in Lima just before the end of December, but not sure then to which regional office I would be posted although we had already initiated some plans for a move to Central America, about which I wrote recently. In April 1976, Steph and I left Lima headed for Turrialba in Costa Rica. And we remained there for almost five years, until the end of November 1980 in fact.

Returning to Lima, I had expected to move on to another of the CIP’s regional offices. Brazil was proposed, but when that fell through, we set about planning to move to the Philippines.


But fate intervened. Around September or October 1980 I heard about a new lectureship (in plant genetic resources) in my old department (by then renamed Plant Biology) at the University of Birmingham. I was torn. I was very happy at CIP and enjoyed the work I had been doing in various aspects of potato production. There again, a tenure-track university lectureship was too good an opportunity to ignore. So I sent in an application.

Around mid-December or so, I received feedback that my name would be put on the short list of candidates for interview, with one proviso. I had to commit to travel to Birmingham (at my own expense) for interview. After a long discussion with Steph, and looking at the most economical way of flying back to the UK (I eventually used Freddie Laker’s Skytrain airline into London-Gatwick from Miami), I confirmed my availability for interview during January.

I was in Birmingham for just over 36 hours (two nights) and afterwards I took the opportunity of visiting my mother who was staying with my eldest brother Martin and his family in Gloucestershire, south of Birmingham. I was in the UK for just under a week all told.

We were three candidates (one female, two male) and I guess that I was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘internal candidate’ (so I can’t rail too much about internal candidates) being the only one with an existing affiliation with the university. I was the last to be interviewed and arrived at the interview room a short while before my turn, to find the first candidate waiting in the corridor while the second was being grilled. We had been told to wait outside the interview room until all interviews had been concluded. One of us would be then invited back in to discuss a possible job offer.

With dry mouth and somewhat sweaty palms (and feeling rather jaded through jet lag) I entered the interview room with some trepidation. However, I was greeted by some friendly faces. The interview panel (certainly five persons) was chaired by Professor John Jinks, head of the Genetics Department and a formidable intellect. He was supported by Professor Derek Walker, head of the Biochemistry Department and Dean of the Science Faculty. There were three staff from Plant Biology: Jack Hawkes, Dr Dennis Wilkins (a fierce ecologist whose interviewing style seemed like a dog worrying a bone – I’d already come across him during my interview for a place on the MSc course, and as a graduate student), and Dr (later Professor) Brian Ford-Lloyd, who I’d known since my early graduate days and who has remained a lifelong friend and colleague with whom I have since published three books and many scientific papers. There may have been another person from the university administration, but I don’t recall.

I guess the interview must have lasted about 40 minutes, each member of the panel taking turns to probe my suitability for this lectureship. Unlike interviews for academic and research positions nowadays, I did not have to present a seminar to the department or be ‘interviewed’ by anyone outside the panel. (Incidentally, when the Mason Chair of Botany became vacant in 1982 on Jack Hawkes’ retirement, none of the staff met any of the professorial candidates nor were they expected to present a seminar).

Interview over, I joined the other two candidates outside, each of us deep in our own thoughts and very little conversation among us. After what seemed an age, but was probably no more than about 15 minutes, the door opened, and Brian came out to invite me back. John Jinks told me that the panel had agreed to offer me the lectureship and asked if I would accept it. I had already discussed with Steph what my answer would be under these circumstances. Unequivocally yes!

I don’t remember much after that. Except that Jack invited me for dinner at his house. I was staying in one of the guest rooms at Staff House in the center of the Birmingham campus. Early next morning, I made my way to the railway station and headed south for a few days before flying back to Peru and telling Steph (and our young daughter Hannah, almost three) the good news.


I joined the Plant Biology faculty on 1 April 1981 and spent ten years teaching undergraduate classes in flowering plant taxonomy, agricultural systems (as a component of a second year common course), and an honours course (with Brian) on plant genetic resources. But most of my teaching was at graduate level, to students from all over the world, who came to Birmingham for its world-renowned MSc course on genetic resources.

Then there was research on potatoes and legumes, and during this decade I supervised a number of graduate students to successfully submit their PhD theses. I had some administrative responsibilities that we were all expected to carry, some more than others. Towards the end of the 80s, however, things were changing at the university, and Margaret Thatcher’s government intervention in higher education was causing considerable disruption and disquiet. I found myself increasingly disillusioned with academic life.

Fate intervened, once again. I received notice of a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines to lead one of the world’s most important genebanks. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. It was not an easy decision. Since IRRI was a sister institute to CIP, funded the same way through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) I knew, more or less what I would be letting myself in for if I joined IRRI.

However, there were more pressing personal issues. When we returned to the UK in 1981, our elder daughter Hannah was almost three. Her sister Philippa was born in May 1982. In 1991 they were thirteen and nine, and about to make the transition from from middle to high school, and from first to middle school, respectively. How would they cope with a move halfway across the world, leaving everything familiar behind, all their friends, and moving into an entirely new education system (we’d already decided that boarding school in the UK would not be an option).


Klaus Lampe

In early January 1991 I was invited for interview at IRRI, and flew with British Airways on a flight from London-Gatwick via Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. The interviews were scheduled for Tuesday to Thursday, three rather intensive days of panel discussions, one-on-one meetings with senior staff, and a seminar. So I chose a flight that would get me into Manila on the Monday afternoon. Well, that was the plan. Arriving at Gatwick I discovered that my flight was delayed about 12 hours. Our designated 747 had a mechanical fault that could not be sorted easily, so we had to wait for a replacement plane to arrive from Florida before being turned around for the flight to the Far East. What a miserable experience. As a result I arrived to IRRI’s research campus in Los Baños (about 65 km south of Manila) around 01:30 on Tuesday morning and, checking over the interview schedule that had been left in my room at IRRI’s guesthouse, noted to my distinct discomfort that I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, and his three Deputies at 07:00. Having left a request to be woken at 06:15, I took a sleeping pill, not that it helped much .

My internal clock was eight hours awry, but somehow I made it through the breakfast, and the next three days, taking a flight back to the UK late on Thursday night. I think I must have slept for a week once I was back in the UK.

There were three candidates for the genebank position. And we all had MSc (genetic resources) and PhD degrees (two on potatoes, one on rice) from the University of Birmingham and with Jack Hawkes as our PhD supervisor. I knew the other two candidates very well. One managed the Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne near Birmingham and the other headed the genebank at another CGIAR center in Nigeria, IITA. Although we overlapped some days at IRRI, our schedule of interviews and meetings meant that we hardly saw anything of each other.

On reflection, the interview schedule was gruelling, with hardly any time to catch one’s breath. We were kept on the go all the time, often with just short breaks between one interview and the next. It was an IRRI tradition to involve as many of the staff in interviewing candidates as possible, with a multiplicity of interview panels representing the different disciplines or a mixture [2]. And of course there was the more detailed interaction with staff in the genebank in my case.

Because the different panels did not interact with one another, candidates (as in my case) were faced with the same line of questions across different panels. Very repetitive and tiresome. And there were, in my opinion, the totally unacceptable and asinine questions from some IRRI staff, some of which received short shrift from me.

Let me give you two or three examples. I was asked if I was prepared to work hard. One line of questioning seemed to question my suitability for joining a center like IRRI and the CGIAR in general. I answered by a question: when did the person join the CGIAR? I was able to reply that I had joined and left the CGIAR years before this particular person had even first entered international agricultural research. 15: love to me! Another scientist, British, was obsessed with my undergraduate career and how successful I had been, notwithstanding that I had graduate degrees, and had been working already for almost 20 years.

A couple of weeks after arriving back in the UK I received a phone call from Lampe offering me the position, which I accepted after some negotiation over the salary and benefits package they originally put on the table. I joined IRRI on 1 July that year, and remained there until my retirement a decade ago.

After successfully running the genebank, in 2001 I was asked by Director General Ron Cantrell (with Board of Trustees approval) to join the senior management team, and become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications, a position I held until my retirement 2010.


[1] At one interview for the Crop Trust in Rome, I was interrupted by someone as I was delivering my seminar, a vision for the future of the organization. After the second interruption, in which this person had tried to ‘correct’ me, I had to tell her that this was my seminar, not hers, and went on to explain my thoughts on web presence. As it turned out I was not selected, but the organization did adopt my proposal for a more meaningful URL for its website.

On another occasion at Trinity College, Dublin, I delivered my seminar in the very lecture theater (in the Department of Botany) where Michael Caine had his wicked way with Julie Walters in the 1983 film Educating Rita.

When I interviewed for a position at ICARDA in Syria, much to my consternation and many members of staff the internal candidate accompanied me to one of the panel interviews, and even sat in on the interview. Needless to say a stop was soon put to that. Very unprofessional for senior management to even allow this to happen.

[2] When I joined IRRI and was involved in interviewing candidates (sometimes as chair of the selection committee) I tried to streamline the process somewhat, reducing the number of panel interviews per se, but giving more time for informal interactions, but giving more responsibility to the selection panel.


 

Growing potatoes – growing professionally

November 1980. After almost five years (from April 1976) Steph and I were preparing to leave Costa Rica, the small Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978. But our time in that beautiful country was coming to an end, and we were headed back to Lima.

So how come I ended up in Costa Rica working on potatoes, since agriculture there is dominated by rice and beans? And coffee and bananas, of course. Potatoes are small beer [1].

Let me explain.

It all started in January 1973, when I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima and, in the process, fulfilled an ambition I’d had since I was a small boy: to visit Peru.

During the three years I was based in Lima, working as an Associate Taxonomist and helping to conserve CIP’s large collection of native Andean potato varieties, I completed research for my PhD degree, awarded by the University of Birmingham in December 1975.

Earlier that year, in April, I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my degree, and to submit my thesis (which was examined in October). However, before leaving for the UK, I had discussions with CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, about rejoining CIP after I had completed my PhD. I wanted to broaden my horizons and learn more about and contribute to potato production around the world, rather than continue working with the potato collection or taxonomy research. He offered me a post-doctoral position in CIP’s Outreach Program, being posted to one of the regional offices.

Exploring options
In 1975, CIP’s Region II program, encompassing Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, had its regional office in Toluca, Mexico (about 64 km west of Mexico City). Potatoes are not a major crop in this region—maize and beans being the staples—although they are locally and economically important in each country.

It was a year of transition. CIP’s regional representative at that time, Ing. Agr. MS Manuel J. Villareal González, had just been named leader of Mexico’s national potato program (in Toluca). My Lima colleague, Ing. Agr. MS Oscar Hidalgo, a plant pathologist, took over as Region II leader and moved to Mexico.

Manuel Villareal and Oscar Hidalgo

The other members of the CIP team in Toluca were local support staff: José Gómez and secretary Guillermina Guadarrama, formerly employees of the Rockefeller Foundation potato program, and some field and glasshouse technicians.

Jose and Guillermina

CIP management proposed setting up a sub-regional office in Costa Rica, without yet deciding what its programmatic responsibility and research focus might be.

To explore various possibilities, Steph and I were asked to visit Costa Rica and Mexico in April on our way back to the UK. And that’s what we did. I should add that I was nervous the whole trip. Why? I was carrying a briefcase full of my thesis research data. I was paranoid that some light-fingered individual might relieve me of the briefcase. There was no computer cloud storage in those days, let alone floppy disks or flash drives.

For many years it was not possible to fly direct between Lima and San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The journey inevitably required a stop-over in Panama City, usually overnight. On our trip north we stayed at the airport hotel but had time enough to explore parts of the city center (not the Canal Zone, unfortunately). And that’s when we had our first McDonald’s hamburgers. I have this distinct memory of my immediate boss, head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Breeding & Genetics, Dr. Roger Rowe, coming back to Lima from one of his home leaves in the USA and telling us all about these ‘new’ hamburger joints that we should try when we had the opportunity. I had thought that, in 1975, McDonald’s was new to Panama, but from what I have found on the internet, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant there in 1971. Notwithstanding, it was a first for us.

Drs. Luis Carlos Gonzalez (L) and Rodrigo Gamez (R)

My Lima colleague, bacteriologist and head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Pathology & Nematology, Dr. Ed French made arrangements for us to visit with fellow bacteriologist Dr. Luis Carlos Gonzalez Umaña and plant virologist Dr. Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who, in later years went on to found and become President of the renowned INBio, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad) at the University of Costa Rica.

Luis Carlos and Rodrigo made us very welcome and, with the leader of the Costarrican potato program, Ing. Agr. Luis Fernando Cartín, took us to see potatoes growing on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano east of San Jose, to labs in the university, and, as a side ‘tourist’ visit, to the Instituto Clodomiro Picado nearby where anti-snake venom serum is produced on a large scale (often in horses). Costa Rica has more than 20 highly venomous snake species.

I think we spent about four days in Costa Rica before travelling on to Mexico. We certainly came away from Costa Rica with a favorable impression. San José is dominated by a stunning landscape of volcanoes (Poás, Irazú, Turrialba), some active or recently active, covered in lush, tropical forest and, on the lower slopes, coffee plantations for which the country is famous. Back in the day, San José was a small city of about 456,000 inhabitants.

In Mexico, we stayed with our friends from Lima, John and Marian Vessey who had moved there in 1974 to work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City. Apart from a visit to the potato program in Toluca, we had the opportunity for some sightseeing, with a memorable visit to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán about 32 km north from CIMMYT.

Steph and me on the top of the Sun Pyramid looking towards the Moon Pyramid at Teotihuacan (April 1975).

Ken Brown

Settling on Costa Rica
Steph and I returned to Lima just after Christmas, all set to move on later in 1976. But where? A decision had not yet been made about Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, a new Director of CIP’s Outreach Program, Dr. Ken Brown, had been appointed while I was back in the UK, and joined CIP in January. In due course, Outreach became the Regional Research Program. As both Ken and his family (wife Geraldine, and five boys) and Steph and I were staying in the center’s guest house for several weeks, we got to know the Browns quite well.

Prof. Luis Sequeira

In order to hasten our move to Region II, we needed to identify an appropriate international institute to host my posting in Costa Rica. So, Roger Rowe, Ed French, and I flew to Costa Rica for a week in early January [2]. There we met with Luis Carlos and Professor Luis Sequeira from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a world renowned plant bacteriologist (and Costarrican by birth) with whom Luis Carlos had completed his PhD, who happened to be visiting family at the time.

We visited sites on the Irazú Volcano and near Alajuela (a regional town northwest of San José) where Luis Carlos was testing potato breeding lines for resistance to bacterial wilt.

We also visited the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional center in Turrialba dedicated to research and graduate education in agriculture, and the management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, established originally in 1942 as the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Sciences (IICA).

The CATIE ‘Henry Wallace’ administration building

CATIE plant pathologist Dr. Raul Moreno from Chile explains the focus of the center’s farming systems research to (L-R) Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.

Turrialba is a small town just over 70 km due east of San José, although at a much lower elevation—around 650m compared with almost 1200m in the city.

The drive to Turrialba from San José via Cartago was not straightforward. Until around 1978 (or maybe later) the section between Cartago and Turrialba was a dirt road, and quite dangerous. It was also the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón to San José so there was a continual stream of heavy (and noisy) trucks travelling between the two cities. The road passed through a zone of frequent low cloud (neblina) with reduced visibility, sometimes quite severely. And, passing through several sugarcane plantations, there would be tractors towing ‘trains’ of carts carrying harvested cane snaking along the road to local sugar mills, and often without displaying any hazard lights. With the state of the road, the frequency of the heavy traffic, and limited visibility, one could get stuck behind one of these slow-moving ‘trains’ for many kilometers. Very frustrating!

At CATIE, we met with the Acting Director, Dr. Jorge Soria (a cocoa breeder) to discuss signing an agreement between CIP and CATIE that would allow me to work from CATIE as a regional base, and set up a research program to breed potatoes for hot humid climates. Turrialba has an average annual temperature of 22.9°C (73.2°F), and more than 2854 mm (or 112.4 inch) of rainfall per year. The wettest months are May to December, with heaviest rainfall in June and July. This, we assumed, would be an ideal, if not challenging environment in which to attempt to grow potatoes.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, an agreement was signed between CIP and CATIE, under which I was to be attached to CATIE’s Crops Department. It was also agreed that CIP would contribute to CATIE’s cropping systems program (funded through USAID’s Regional Office for Central America and Panama, ROCAP) once suitable potato varieties had been identified.

Steph and I headed to Costa Rica in early April 1976, and we remained there until the end of November 1980. I’ve been back there just once, in 1997.

Getting started in Turrialba
Back in 1976, I can’t deny that I was rather daunted about setting out on my own. I’d turned 27 only the previous November. And communicating with colleagues back in Lima was not straightforward, as I have described in another post.

We didn’t plant our first potato experiments in Turrialba until May 1977 to check whether any varieties would yield under the warm and humid conditions there. Instead, we were faced with bacterial wilt, a devastating disease of potatoes and other related crops like tomato (as well as bananas!), about which I have blogged before.

Between arriving in Costa Rica the previous year and then, I’d had to renovate screenhouses for our research, acquire a vehicle (that took several months), hire a research assistant and a secretary, as well as attend to other regional duties that Oscar Hidalgo asked me to undertake. In fact within a few weeks of arriving in Costa Rica he whisked me off to Mexico for a month to participate in a potato production course, leaving Steph on her own in (to her) a very strange Turrialba.

Within a couple of months or so, I’d hired a young man, Jorge Aguilar Martinez, as my research assistant. Jorge lived in Santa Rosa, a small village just outside Turrialba, where his father grew coffee on a small farm (finca). Jorge was 20 in June that year, recently married to Carmen (a secretary in the animal husbandry department at CATIE), and with a small boy, Leonardo (who is now Head of Information and Communication Technology at CATIE).

Jorge Aguilar

Jorge had applied for a position in the Crops Department at CATIE before I arrived there, but there were no vacancies. He seemed an ideal candidate: keen, interested to get on in the world. He was studying at night at the local campus of the University of Costa Rica for a qualification in business management. Apart from his coffee background, he had no field experience in crop agronomy, let alone potatoes! But Jorge was a quick learner. In fact, we learned a lot together how to grow potatoes. What particularly impressed me about him was his willingness to innovate, look for solutions. And have a flexible attitude to how we worked. We got the job done, and that often meant leaving for our experimental field plots higher up one of the nearby volcanoes before daybreak, and not returning to Turrialba until late in the afternoon once everything had been completed.

One of our isolation plots for seed multiplication high on the slopes of the Turrialba volcano.

Then a young woman, Leda Avila, from Alajuela joined my project as a bilingual secretary. Her support was fantastic. She had a bubbly and confident character, and was always curious to understand exactly what we were doing in the field. One day she asked me if she could join us on one of our visits to experimental plots we had planted on the slopes of the two local volcanoes, Irazú and Turrialba. She told me that as she typed research reports for Lima she had no idea what the work involved, but wanted to find out. So, one day, and donning her field boots, Leda joined the CIP team in the field.

She was so enthusiastic about her first field experience that she would join us thereafter as and when circumstances permitted. Much to the consternation of our CATIE colleagues. They’d never heard of such a thing. But to me, it just made sense to include Leda as a key member of the team.

Moisés Alonso Pereira

In late 1977, Oscar Hidalgo registered for his PhD at North Carolina State University, and left for the USA. On Ken Brown’s recommendation, Richard Sawyer asked me to take over leadership of the Region II Program. As a consequence, my travel schedule increased significantly (especially as we were developing an important cooperative program on potatoes involving six countries, PRECODEPA), and I had to find permanent technical support for Jorge. I hired Moisés Alonso Pereira as Research Technician, who was 17 or 18 then.

Searching for resistance to bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum) and ways to control it became an important focus of our research in Turrialba. But we also developed rapid multiplication techniques for seed production, and that work accelerated once my colleague and dear friend, Jim Bryan, joined the project in Costa Rica for one year in the late seventies, seen in some of the photos below passing on his encyclopedic knowledge about seed production and rapid multiplication techniques to Jorge and others. We also trained potato scientists from neighboring countries about these techniques through PRECODEPA.

At the same time as we were developing these rapid multiplication methods, my colleagues Bob Booth and Roy Shaw in Lima were adapting diffuse light potato storages for use on farm. We took one of their designs, and adapted it for use in Turrialba. With a double sandwich of fiberglass panels, a wide roof overhang to shade the sides, and an air conditioner to drop the temperature to a reasonable level (it was often more than 30ºC outside) we could successfully store potatoes for several months.

Turrialba became a prime site for testing potato varieties for their resistance to bacterial wilt, and CIP scientists from Lima would pass through to see for themselves how we were getting on. Given his interest and expertise in bacterial wilt it wasn’t surprising that Ed French visited us on at least one occasion.

Ed French and Jorge Aguilar checking the yield of some potato varieties after exposure to bacterial wilt. This plot is surrounded by the remains of wilted plants.

We also worked with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (MAG) in San José to test different potato lines against various diseases such as viruses, and worked with farmers to find ways to increase productivity.

The productivity of many potato farms was quite low. Why? Overuse of fertilizers and agrochemicals, and not applying these in the most effective way to control pests and diseases, especially control of the late blight disease to which the two main varieties Atzimba and Rosita were highly susceptible. Many farmers worked on the basis that twice the dose of a fungicide, for example, would provide twice the control. Sadly that was never the case. Working with individual farmers was possible, but having the potato growers association on side was important. And their president was a young and forward-looking farmer, Olman Montero.

With Olman Montero on his farm on the slopes of the Irazu volcano.

Our work led to a few publications. Scientific publication was always welcome, but was never a driving force in our work. We were more concerned to make a difference in farmers’ fields by providing clean seed, improving productivity, identifying resistant potato varieties, or managing diseases in the field.

  • Bryan, J.E., M.T. Jackson & N. Melendez, 1981. Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.F. Cartín & J.A. Aguilar, 1981. El uso y manejo de fertilizantes en el cultivo de la papa (Solanum tuberosum L.) en Costa Rica. Agronomía Costarricense 5, 15-19. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1981. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum (Race 1) in a naturally infested soil in Costa Rica. Phytopathology 71, 690-693. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.C. González & J.A. Aguilar, 1979. Avances en el combate de la marchitez bacteriana de papa en Costa Rica. Fitopatología 14, 46-53. PDF

The five years that I spent in Costa Rica were among the best of my career. I really had to become self-reliant, learning to stand on my own two feet and grow professionally as a scientist and a project manager. There was no alternative. Being so far from CIP headquarters in Lima, and with communications vastly slower than today, I just couldn’t call on someone if I found myself in a spot of bother. Phone calls had to be booked at least a day in advance, or we could use telex – who remembers that? Otherwise I just mailed quarterly progress reports to keep everyone up to date with what was going on in Central America, and whether I was keeping to the work plans developed in December each year when the Regional Research staff from around the world congregated in Lima for a two week planning meeting. Ken Brown was an excellent Regional Research director; he let me and my Regional Research colleagues get on with things with only minor adjustments as and when necessary (keeping his staff ‘on a light rein’), so different from today when scientists are assailed frequently and from many quarters to account for their work and performance.

I owe a great debt to Jorge, Moisés, and Leda for all their contributions to the success of the CIP project in Costa Rica. And all my friends and colleagues in Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, as well as other programs contributing to PRECODEPA.

It was with some sadness that Steph, Hannah, and I upped sticks and moved back to Lima. You might ask why we would make such a move when things were going well in the Costa Rica program. By November 1980 I felt that I had achieved what I’d been sent there for, and even if I stayed on for another year or so, the scope of the work wouldn’t have changed significantly. In any case, the PRECODEPA project was ticking along quite nicely, managed by the national programs themselves, and everyone felt that a more distant relationship with CIP would allow the project to grow and mature. In any case, I was also looking for another potato challenge. And I expected that to come with another Regional Research posting. Little did I know, at the end of November that year, what life would have in store for me in 1981 [3].


Where are they now?
Since leaving Costa Rica at the end of November 1980, I have only been back to Costa Rica once, in 1997 when I was managing a worldwide project on rice biodiversity for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) funded by the Swiss government. I did meet both Jorge and Leda on that trip; I don’t recall if I saw Moisés during that visit to Turrialba. I stayed a couple of days in Turrialba. Maybe Jorge, Moisés and I spent an evening at the hilltop bar-restaurant at Turrialtico (now a fancy lodge) near CATIE where we would venture to enjoy a few beers (and some typical bar snacks or bocas) after a day in the field. And I had mostly lost contact with all three former colleagues—until quite recently. Such is the power of social media!

Jorge, Leda, and Moisés are all now retired, more or less, although involved in various volunteer activities. They would be in their early to mid-sixties now.

Jorge continues to live in Turrialba, and still manages a small finca on a part-time basis. He and his wife Carmen have three sons and two granddaughters. Sofía and Amanda are Leonardo’s daughters.

Jorge and Carmen

L-R: Fabian (40), Leonardo (44). Carmen, Jorge, and Daniel (30).

Sofia (7) and Amanda (2)

After leaving CATIE in early 1980, Leda returned to Alajuela, and spent many years working at the headquarters of IICA on the outskirts of San José. She has enjoyed traveling in her retirement, most recently in Myanmar in 2019.

She has one son, Enrique (29) who I met in 1997. I stayed with Leda for a couple of nights in Alajuela, and Enrique graciously gave me his room.

Enrique and Leda on 9 November 2020 in her garden in Alajuela.

Moisés now lives in the La Pitahaya neighborhood of Cartago, a city at the heart of the Costarrican potato industry, lying more or less halfway between San José and Turrialba.

Leda, Moisés, and José Alonso

With his second wife Leda, he has one son José Alonso, who celebrated his 11th birthday just a few days ago. Moisés also has two daughters Ana Amelia (26) and Karen (24) from his first marriage. He also has two granddaughters aged sixteen and fifteen.

It’s wonderful to have reconnected with old friends.


[1] In 1983, I contributed a short piece on potatoes in Costa Rican Natural History, a book edited by eminent tropical biologist, Daniel Janzen who spent many years studying biodiversity in Costa Rica.

[2] I have two enduring memories of that trip. Actually, of the flight from Lima to Panama, and the return. As I mentioned earlier, there were no direct flights from Lima to Costa Rica back in the day. We took an early morning flight (around 06:30 or so) on Air Panama from Lima to Panama City, with an onward connection there to San José. Hardly had the aircraft (a Boeing 727) lifted off the runway in Lima when it was ‘open bar’ for the remainder of the flight. I think Roger, Ed, and I all enjoyed rum cocktails before breakfast! Then on the return flight from Panama (I have this idea at the back of my mind that it was a Braniff DC8 flight), we hit an air pocket somewhere over the Colombian Andes, and it felt as though the plane dropped 1000 feet. Bang! That was my first experience of some serious turbulence, but not the last by a long chalk over the next 45 years.

[3] We returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving to Brasilia (for the southern cone countries of South America). When that fell through, the next option was to join the CIP program for Southeast Asia, based in Los Baños in the Philippines. In the event, that didn’t come about since I had applied for a faculty position in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at the University of Birmingham, being offered the position in January 1981. We moved back to the UK in March that year. It would be another decade before landing up in the Philippines. But that’s another story.

Our Northumbrian adventure begins . . .

I first visited the northeast of England in the summer of 1967. I was 18. And then, a couple of years later, I joined a group of Northumbrian pipers and dancers from Newcastle upon Tyne to perform at a bagpipe festival in the Czech town of Strakonice. Before heading for Czechoslovakia (as it was in those days) we met up in Newcastle to get to know one another, and form Morris and rapper sword dance teams. And get some practice!

In 1998, Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, the county immediately south of the border with Scotland, and one of England’s largest counties. Until 1974, Newcastle was part of Northumberland, but then the metropolitan county of Tyne & Wear was created.

Northumberland is a magnificent county. There are awe-inspiring landscapes, beaches that stretch to the horizon, and millennia of history, including remarkable Roman remains dotted across the county, the world famous Hadrian’s Wall in particular.

Most of the county is rural. Settlements grew up on the coast, exploiting the once-abundant fishing in the North Sea, or mining ‘black gold’—coal seams that stretch for miles under the sea. Fishing stocks declined, coal pits closed. The once prosperous coastal towns and mining villages are now looking beyond tourism for a brighter future.

In 2000, our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at the University of Durham (16 miles south of Newcastle) so we would visit her there over the next three years when back in the UK on home leave from the Philippines where I had been working since 1991 in rice research.

In 2005, Philippa returned to the northeast and took a research post in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. Between then and when we retired back to the UK in 2010, we visited her in Newcastle on several occasions, and have traveled there a couple of times a year once we had resettled in Bromsgrove.

Steph and Philippa on the banks of the River Tyne in the center of Newcastle in July 2007. That’s the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in the distance, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to the right, and the shiny building (top right) is the culture hall, Sage Gateshead.

In 2010, Philippa married Andi and they settled in the Heaton district of Newcastle. Elvis and Felix were born in September 2011 and September 2013. She completed her PhD in 2010 and joined the faculty of Northumbria University.

Family get-together in Bromsgrove in mid-August 2019.

Our elder daughter Hannah and her family—husband Michael, and Callum (10) and Zoë (8)—live in St Paul, Minnesota, and since 2010, we have traveled to visit them each year (as well as having a video call every week). But not this year, unfortunately.

For several years, both Philippa and Hannah have been encouraging us to sell our home of 39 years in Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle. Well, as you might imagine, we were comfortably settled, it was hard to even think about such a move. But the more we did, weighing up all the advantages of being closer to family since we’re not getting any younger, and while we are still in good health, moving to Newcastle didn’t seem such a crazy idea after all.

In November 2019 we decided to take a look at the housing market in Newcastle, and again when we visited over Christmas. We made the decision. We would move in 2020, so put our house on the market in January this year. The Covid-19 pandemic almost scuppered our plans, and although we didn’t make our original deadline of mid-year to be in Newcastle, we have now arrived. Just two weeks ago, and have taken a small rental property for the next six months.

What’s even more remarkable is that we have already found a house to buy, made an offer that was accepted, and have begun the conveyancing to purchase. It’s actually not too far from where we are currently living in the northeast of the city, towards the coast.

Last week (the day before Steph’s birthday), and it being a bright sunny day, we headed to Seaton Sluice just five miles away on the coast to enjoy the sea air. I’ve never lived by the sea (if you discount the time I was a student in Southampton, which is a major seaport, and not close to any beaches). Steph hails from Southend on Sea in Essex, and grew up just stone’s throw from stretches of beach where the Thames estuary meets the North Sea.

Now we have the opportunity of walking along the beach any time the fancy takes us. And that’s just what we did on the 7th, and yesterday. We have walked the beach at Seaton Sluice in the past with Philippa and the family. But these were our first walks as residents, so to speak.

I still have to pinch myself that we can hop in the car, and in just over ten minutes can be walking on the beach. On the 7th we couldn’t park at the usual carpark; it was occupied by maintenance workers who were doing some engineering work on the beach. So we parked further south on Rocky Island, and walked along the beach. On our second visit, we headed further north.

What an exhilarating feeling, watching the waves roll in and crash on the beach. The strong breeze blowing the cobwebs away. We even saw an Atlantic grey seal enjoying an early lunch during our first walk.

These are just the first two of many more walks to come and enjoy. Thus begins our Northumbrian adventure. Watch this space . . .

Moving house: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Selling and moving house is, they say, one of life’s more stressful episodes. And, from personal experience, I can vouch for that. But it has not always been that way.

Steph and I have moved house several times, and across continents: from the UK to Peru in 1973; from Peru to Costa Rica in 1976; from Costa Rica back to the UK in 1981; and to the Philippines and back in 1991 and 2010. However, none of these moves was as stressful as our most recent one. That’s because we never had a house to sell as well.

As I’ll relate later on, the actual move out of our home of more than 39 years in Bromsgrove and move into a rental property in Newcastle upon Tyne, was really rather straightforward. It was all the months and weeks leading up to the actual sale of our house, and particularly the last month, that caused all the stress, almost a meltdown even.

Let’s go back to the beginning
Since July 1981 we have lived in Bromsgrove, a relatively small market town in north-east Worcestershire, just 13 miles or so south of the center of Birmingham. But with our two daughters grown up, married, and with families of their own, and Steph and me not getting any younger (we’re both in our early 70s) we took the decision about a year ago to move away from Bromsgrove, and relocate in the Newcastle upon Tyne area of north-east England where our younger daughter Philippa lives with her family: husband Andi and sons Elvis and Felix. Moving closer to our elder daughter Hannah and her family was not an option. They live in St Paul, Minnesota!

Philippa with Elvis and Felix outside our rental home in Newcastle on Steph’s birthday, 8 October.

So, in early January we asked several estate agents (realtors in US parlance) to tender for the sale of our house, eventually settling on a local firm, Robert Oulsnam and Company that had a branch in Bromsgrove’s High Street. We chose this firm not only for its very competitive quotation (at just 0.5% of final sale price) but because we felt they put the client first. They were interested to know what we wanted to achieve whereas other agencies just gave us the ‘hard sell’ why we should choose them, their fantastic record of sales, notwithstanding that they valued our house significantly lower than did Oulsnams. We would never have achieved the price we did had we gone with one of the other estate agents. 

By mid-January, the details of No. 4 had been posted online, featured in the local newspapers, and circulated to a list of prospective buyers. A sign went up in the front garden: For Sale!

Viewings were not brisk, to say the least, which rather surprised us given the excellent location of our house: within five minutes walk of two of the best first and middle schools in town, and 10 minutes walk in opposite directions to the town center or the newly-refurbished rail station.


Pandemic lockdown . . . and recovery from the first wave
I guess there were about ten or so viewings up to mid-March, by which time the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to surge. By the middle of March Steph and I had already begun to self-isolate, and decided not to take any more viewings. Except for one. Before we self-isolated we had received a request for a viewing a week hence, so decided to honor that one. In any case during most of the viewings we had not been in the house, and had taken the opportunity for a daily walk.

Then, that was that. The Covid lockdown came into force, estate agents closed up shop for the time being, and all went quiet. We did wonder whether it would in fact be better to forget all about a move in 2020, and park the idea until 2021.

As the first wave of the pandemic passed towards late May, and parts of the economy were allowed to open once again, estate agents resumed their activities. And almost immediately we received a request for second viewing: from the couple who were the last ones to view the house before lockdown. The next day they made an offer, at a price much lower than we were prepared to accept. I made a counter offer, and within an hour this was accepted. Sold! Things were on the up. Or so we thought.

Our solicitor told us that the conveyancing process would take six to nine weeks. We never expected sixteen. That’s because there was a ‘chain’ of three buyers below us. And unforeseen delays.

We had already decided that we would sell our house first, then move into rental property in Newcastle, using that as a base to look for a new home. Even without the pandemic making life and travel difficult, trying to look for a house 240 miles away from home was almost impossible.


Getting ready to move
Did we jump the gun? By the end of June we had selected a removal company, under the impression that the sale would go through by the beginning of August. This wasn’t a bad idea, because we then began to go through our many years of accumulated ‘stuff’ and discard what we no longer needed, and boxing those we intended to take north, books in particular. Boxes and boxes of them. We also decided to dispose of the large (and very heavy) leather sofa and armchair we had acquired way back in August 1976 just after moving to Costa Rica. It was not only beginning to show its age, but we knew it would probably be too big for a smaller house that we would move into. Reluctantly we also gave away the dining table, six chairs, and sideboard, all made from cristobal, a tropical hardwood found in Costa Rica. Fortunately our next door neighbors were interest to take these off our hands. We had to send the sofa and armchair to landfill. I wasn’t able to upcycle those.

Our neighbor Dave (center) with his brother Nigel and nephew after we’d removed all the pieces of furniture from No. 4

July came, as did August and there was no movement in the chain below us, as the buyers at the bottom of the chain and in the middle negotiated for mortgages. Our buyers were keen to move in by 1 September, which would have suited us fine. No one could agree on a date to exchange contracts, the point at which a house is legally sold. Because we were still looking for a house to rent, we asked for three weeks between exchange of contracts and completion, the day we would have to move out. 

I’d had my eye on one property in Newcastle for a few weeks, which I knew we could rent on a six month tenancy. Six month tenancies are as rare as hen’s teeth; landlords mostly want tenants for a minimum of one year. I negotiated the tenancy aware that we could not sign any agreement until our house was sold, i.e. we had exchanged contracts. So, around 14 September I proposed to everyone in our buying/selling chain (through solicitors, of course) that we should agree on a completion date of 30 September. This would allow just two weeks for us to complete the tenancy background checks and the like. 

Finally it was agreed that contracts would be exchanged on Wednesday 23 September, even less than the two weeks that I had compromised to. So, with anticipation and some nervousness, the 23rd dawned and we sat around waiting for confirmation that this next important stage had been completed, leaving us free to sign a tenancy agreement. You can imagine my reaction when, around 4 pm, I received a phone call from my solicitor telling me that the exchange had fallen through. There had been a last minute ‘glitch’ involving the sale of our buyer’s house. I felt desperate.

By late afternoon on the Thursday, it seemed as if the ‘glitch’ had been resolved and we were promised exchange of contracts the following morning. By 2.30 pm that Friday afternoon we’d still not heard anything, and concerned that the exchange would ‘fail’ once again, I phoned my solicitor who was as perplexed as we were why things had not gone through until then (all handled through phone calls) since the ‘exchange’ had begun that same morning around 9.30 am.

Then, around 3.10 pm there was another call: exchange completed! Having already carefully scrutinised our tenancy agreement line by line over the previous couple of days, I immediately digitally signed my copy and submitted it online. That generated a copy for Steph to sign, and once she had submitted her digital copy, the tenancy agreement was wrapped up. Relief all round. We’d have a roof over our heads after moving out of No. 4 on the 30th.

I also had to confirm the move with our removal company, Robinsons Relocation. I guess we’d given them the run around over the previous couple of weeks, pencilling our removal date for the 30th but not able to confirm this until the last moment.

On my 70th birthday in November 2018, my bank manager had sent me a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut champagne. We never could find a good excuse or opportunity to open it. Until that Friday night.

Over the next few days, we completed our packing, and clearing the last remaining items in the garage and garden that I needed to take to the local waste disposal and recycling center. 


The move
It felt strange at No. 4 the night before the move. Our last night there after more than 39 years. Over those decades Steph had created a lovely garden, so we enjoyed a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and wandered around the garden. Steph had taken cuttings from many of her favorite plants and these had been crated up in anticipation of the move. 

We were up with the larks next morning, the 30th, and after a quick breakfast, we packed away the final items that were still in use in the kitchen. 

Our removals company was due at 8.30 am, but they actually turned up fifteen minutes early. And got immediately to work, despite the rather dank and dreary weather. It began to rain more or less as they arrived, but fortunately had cleared within the hour.

The removals team were three: Paul, Kyle, and Harrison (aka ‘H’). Since we’d already done all of the packing ourselves, Paul and his team only had to load everything on their truck. I say ‘only load’, yet some items were quite heavy and cumbersome, and one large Ikea bookshelf had to be dismantled (yes, they are as complicated to take apart as assemble!).

By 11.30 am everything had been loaded, the van closed up and they were off. I say ‘off’, but back to base in Redditch as they intended to drive up from the West Midlands to Newcastle early the next day.

Then it was time for Steph and me to have a final check around an empty No. 4, make sure everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion as much as we could, grab a quick sandwich, lock the front door, and be on our way. That was about an hour after removers had left, and by then there was a removals van parked outside waiting to move our buyers in. They had to wait until around 3.30 pm to get access to the keys once bank transfers had been confirmed.

Grabbing a quick sandwich after all had been cleared. And a final photo in front of No. 4.

With that, we hit the road heading for Newcastle, and arriving at our Premier Inn in Shiremoor (less than a mile from our rental property) just after 5 pm. I enjoyed a couple of large beers that night.

The move in . . . 
Around 9.30 on the following morning, 1 October, I had a voicemail message from Paul of Robinsons letting me know where they were, and at what time they expected to arrive in Newcastle. We met up with an agent of the lettings agency to gain access to our rental home, check the utilities and inventory. It’s a strange experience moving into a property that you’ve never seen firsthand, but only through online descriptions and photos. However, it turned out just fine. We have a compact, three bedroom house, very close to excellent transport links, shopping, medical services and the like. So we knew we could settle very easily there.

The removals crew turned up just before 1 pm, and immediately set to work. And just before 4 pm they were on their way south once again.


Thus ended our house sale and move saga. So what were the good, the bad, and the ugly?

The good
On reflection, I think our estate agent served us well, with a good discount on their fee, and continual follow-up on what was happening down the chain. The promotional materials they produced were of a high standard. Also the service we received from Robinsons Relocation for the actual move north was excellent.

The bad
What frustrated us most was the lack of transparency in the legal aspects of the sale. Once we had instructed solicitors to handle the sale, it was like sucking blood from a stone to find out what was happening throughout the chain. No-one was proactive, keeping us updated. It was always us having to make enquiries. Now I am the last person to deny anyone their annual vacation, but I was extremely annoyed on two occasions to find that two solicitors in the chain had taken off for a week or more at critical times in the sales negotiations without letting their clients know. In any case the whole sales process seems arcane and convoluted, and the lack of information and transparency only made the whole thing more mysterious and stressful.

The ugly
Selling a house is stressful at the best of times, as I’ve already mentioned. Selling one during a pandemic just adds to the stress, and anxiety. And the last month, as deadlines came and went without apparent progress, and the pressure to find a rental property in Newcastle increased, my stress levels increased seemingly exponentially. There were a couple of occasions when I came close to a breakdown, and I’m a pretty level-headed sort of chap. Just the uncertainty, and not knowing whether we’d have a roof over our heads once we’d sold No. 4, were awful. I don’t think I slept more than three hours a night for over a month, and I’ve lost quite a bit of weight (which, on reflection, can’t be a bad thing!).

It was a relief when that call came through that contracts had been exchanged on 25 September, opening the door to so many other aspects of our move such as finalising the rental contract, confirm removals arrangements, and the like.

But we did it. We have now been in Newcastle for just over two weeks. We are settled, and relaxing a bit more. And we have already found our next home. But that’s for another blog post in due course.


 

What is it about September?

. . . often a mellow month, the transition from the hot, summer months to the cooler days of autumn.

When we worked overseas during the 1970s we would return to the UK each September on home-leave. And mostly enjoyed excellent weather.

I think September Song, that classic from 1938 and performed here by Jeff Lynne on his 1990 album Armchair Theatre, sums up the month just right.

September is also a Jackson birthday month. My father, Fred Jackson, was born on 15 September 1908. My eldest brother Martin and youngest grandson Felix share a birthday, 1 September, but 74 years apart, being 81 and seven respectively this year. And second grandson Elvis celebrates his birthday on 24 September. He will be nine.

Felix and Elvis in May 2020


It’s also a month when significant things happened during my career.

Fifty years ago, in September 1970, I enrolled at the University of Birmingham for the one year MSc degree course in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources run by the Department of Botany in the School of Biological Sciences. I had been in the university just once before, in the early summer of 1967, when I sat my Biology Advanced Level practical exam in the School’s first year laboratory, never anticipating I would be there again to study three years later.

A year later, in September 1971 I had expected to be on my way to Peru in South America, to join the International Potato Center (CIP) on a one-year contract to help manage the center’s potato germplasm collection. That didn’t happen then, but took until January 1973 before I departed these shores.

In September 1980, while winding down my five year assignment in Costa Rica, I heard about a lectureship that had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham. I sent in my application and successfully interviewed for the position in January 1981, joining the faculty in April.

Moving on a decade, it was during September 1990 that I first heard about a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center. I was interviewed in January 1991 and joined the institute in July that year remaining there for almost 19 years before retiring in April 2010.


It’s now 2020. So what does September hold in store? Hopefully, it will be the month our house sale is completed and we move north to Newcastle upon Tyne.