The Beatles, blogs, and long-lost friends . . .

Since I started this blog in February, I’ve had more than 8200 views, an average of almost 30 per day; these come from 127 countries, with only 15% of these representing a single view.

I’ve now published 87 stories. It’s interesting to see which ones have attracted most attention. The stories about potatoes and Norman Borlaug are up there, and early on, my post about Fred Astaire had many hits. In terms of searches, one of the most commonly searched terms concerns attending an investiture at Buckingham Palace. Before my investiture in February I had also ‘agonized’ over what to wear. It seems there are quite a few folks out there having the same worries.

I have my blog set up such that spam comments are automatically blocked by the site, and I can review them, but all legitimate comments are not posted until I’ve had chance to review and approve them. I haven’t had that many comments added to my posts, but there was one recently (at the end of October) that certainly caught my attention – but not in relation to the actual post to which it was linked (about running the IRRI genebank). It came from someone who I have not seen for over 50 years, and who had been directed to my blog while researching her family history.

Earlier this year I posted a story about skiffle music, and how a photograph of my elder brother Ed and me had been used in The Beatles Story in Liverpool  Here’s my great-nephew Sammy standing in front of the exhibit.

Sammy at The Beatles Story exhibition in Liverpool. That’s Ed on guitar, and me on tea chest bass.

Watching in that photo are my mother (she must have been about 50 or so when the photo was taken in the late 50s; she passed away in 1992), and beside her is my best friend at that time, Geoff Sharratt. Sitting on my Mum’s knee is Geoff’s sister Susan, who must have been about three or four. And it was Susan who commented on my rice genebank post!

Well, I was – to say the least – quite gob-smacked. Imagine, after more than 50 years. I contacted Sue by email, and through her I have now been in contact with Geoff, and we have been able to exchange quite a few memories and photographs of growing up in Leek during the 1950s. Geoff and Susan’s parents, Geoff Snr. and Rene, were the licensees of the Quiet Woman pub in St Edward Street, just a few doors down from No 65 where my father had opened a photographic retail business in April 1956 when we moved from Congleton, a small Cheshire town just over 10 miles northwest of Leek.

The Quiet Woman pub in St Edward Street, Leek. Our home, No 65, is just to the left of the photo.

Approaching the St Edward Street crossroads and traffic lights, near the Quiet Woman pub. Our home, No 65 is just to the left of the photo.

However, Geoff was not the first person of my age I met when we moved in. That was Philip Porter and his sister Jill who lived next to us – their father was a tailor. But quickly I got to know Geoff and Sue, and with Philip, and young David Philips who lived across the street, we formed ‘the Army Gang’, and often went out on manoeuvres to the local Brough Park, where we’d play all day long – weather permitting – especially in a large clump of rhododendron bushes that made an excellent hideout.

The ‘Army Gang’, l to r: Sue, Geoff, me, Philip Porter, David Philips, taken in about 1958.

And if the weather wasn’t so good, we always had access to the lofts and other rooms at the pub, especially those used by the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB) – the Buffs – a ‘fraternal organization’ (I guess a bit like the Free Masons). Well, these rooms were magic – lots of chairs and high benches to play around, and hide in. Geoff had an attic bedroom that had a door leading into a loft, and he recently reminded me of some of the mischief we got up to – like melting lead soldiers to make new ones, playing with mercury, testing the ‘courage’ of his sister who wanted to join our gang, so we apparently tied a rope round her waist and lowered her from a first floor window!

Playing in a tributary of the River Dane at Quarnford, near Flash, the highest village in England; with Rene Sharratt.


Beside Rudyard Lake, with Mike on the right, and Geoff and Sue on the left. We have no idea who the other little girl is, next to Mike.

Beside Rudyard Lake, with Mike on the right, and Geoff and Sue on the left. We have no idea who the other little girl is, next to Mike.

On one occasion, my brother Ed, Geoff and me went trap bottle fishing (today kids use old plastic Coke bottles; we used a wine bottle with the bottom ‘dimple’ opened) in the River Churnet where it crossed the Newcastle Road in Leek at the bottom of Ladderedge, just over a mile from home. Well, silly me, I leaned over too far to retrieve one of my traps, and tumbled into the water, base over apex – and at that time (it must have been 1958 or 1959) I couldn’t swim. And although beside the bank, I was certainly out of my depth. Geoff raised the alarm to Ed (so it was reported in the local newspaper, the Leek Post & Times), and he came running along the bank and dived in after me. Meanwhile, as the drama unfolded, the golfers at Westwood Golf Club on the opposite bank stood and watched. But one kindly gentleman did come to our aid, and soaking wet, drove us home. Both Ed and I remember that our mother (who I recall was not well at that time, and in bed) was not best pleased when she saw a couple of rather bedraggled urchins dripping water all over her kitchen floor.

In 1960 I moved on to a Catholic grammar school in Stoke-on-Trent, a 12 mile or so daily journey. Geoff attended school in Leek, and gradually our paths diverged. I hadn’t realized until he told me recently that his parents left the Quiet Woman in 1960, and by 1963 had moved to Rocester, about 17 miles away (and quite close to the area of Staffordshire-Derbyshire where my Jackson-Bull ancestors come from) to manage another pub. By 1963, we had also moved away from St Edward Street into Leek’s Market Place where my father bought a property and transferred his photographic business there until his retirement in 1976.

And until that comment on my blog from Susan a month ago, I’d had no contact with her or Geoff since about 1961 – and I’d often wondered what had happened to them. And what a pleasure it is to be in contact with them once again. Ah, the power of the Internet!

And here’s the difference that 50+ years make.

Ed on guitar, Mike on bass, and being watched by Sue (on my Mum’s knee) and Geoff.

Ed in 2011.

Mike in October 2012.

Geoff and Sue at the wedding of Sue’s daughter.

As for the other members of  ‘the Army Gang’, neither Geoff nor I know anything about Philip Porter’s whereabouts. But I am in contact now and again with David Philips through Facebook – he now lives part of each year in Florida and the rest of the year in Leek. His father Jimmy was a painter and decorator whose parents were the licensees of The Wilkes Head pub at the very top of St Edward Street. David’s mother Gwen was a ladies’ hairdresser and did my Mum’s hair every week.

When you’ve heard one bagpipe tune, you’ve heard them both . . . (Jack Finney) – updated 7 November 2018

Bagpipes are maybe an acquired taste.

For many Scots the skirl o’ the pipes is a profoundly cultural expression, but bagpipes are not – contrary to popular perception – a peculiarly Scottish ‘invention’. Indeed, many countries have their own indigenous varieties, and the Scottish version has been adopted widely around the world. Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, where my elder daughter Hannah graduated in 2000 has its own pipe band, and many of its staff and student members have little or no ‘cultural’ attachment to the instrument. The band is very much in evidence during annual commencements and at other events in the state.

Pipes are a very emotive and emotional instruments. I am actually quite fond of the sound of bagpipes, and can confess to the odd raising of hairs on the back of my neck when hearing a pipe band, or even a lone piper playing a pibroch. Besides the Scottish pipes, I particularly love the softer sound of the bellows-blown Northumbrian small pipes, outstanding in the hands of a virtuoso piper like Kathryn Tickell.

And, of course, there are the Irish or uillean pipes, also bellows-blown. Maybe it’s in my Irish genes, but the sound of the Irish pipes in the hands of someone like Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains never ceases to inspire me.

November 2018 update:
Just yesterday I came across a couple of videos on YouTube that really caught my attention, and inspired me about the talent of so many young musicians. Here are just a couple of examples featuring young female pipers. And in both videos they play the same air, Táimse im’ Chodladh, but their styles are quite different.

Amy Campbell is a blind musician from Ireland who has really taken to the uillean pipes. In this video, recorded in 2016 (when she was sixteen) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC she is joined by pipers Gay McKeon (on the left in the video) and Emmett Gill. She plays pipes without the drones that you can see played by the other two. McKeon teaches blind children how to play [and] noted what an amazing achievement it was for Amy.

Amy has a condition known as optic nerve hypoplasia, a genetic condition that carries with it a many other medical challenges. In this video she talks about her love of piping.

Having watched that video, YouTube then ‘offered’ me another featuring Catherine Ashcroft, playing in Northern Ireland in 2014.

There are two very interesting facts about Catherine. First, she’s self taught, and that must have been a great challenge to master such a notoriously difficult instrument. Second, she’s English, from Cumbria in the north of England. She has no Irish piping heritage to fall back on.

Performing with Belfast guitarist and singer Maurice Dickson as Mochara, Catherine has made a name for herself on the folk scene in the UK. I also read that she was invited to tour with Riverdance in China. Some pipes purist aficionados think her piping a little brash (my interpretation of their comments), but all acknowledge her skill and talent, and given a few more years experience will develop into an even finer piper. I’m impressed (and a little envious)!

Strakonice International Bagpipe Festival
I’ve mentioned bagpipes in a couple of previous posts about morris dancing, and my first trip abroad. Now let me recount that visit to Strakonice in Czechoslovakia in September 1969 to attend the Second International Bagpipe Festival (Mezinárodní Dudácký Festival). Czechoslovakia has a long tradition of bagpiping, and one of the foremost pipers, and founder of the Strakonice Festival, is Josef Režný

I think this is Josef Režný

Forty three years later the festival is still held every two years, with the latest taking place in August this year.

However the festival is not just about piping as such, but also about pipe music as an accompaniment to folk dance. I joined a group of pipers and dancers from Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England (along with two fellow dancers from Southampton University – Dr Joe Smartt and Russell Meredith) organized by renowned Northumbrian piper Forster Charlton. The group also comprised fiddler and piper Colin Ross [1] of High Level Ranters fame, and his wife Ray Fisher, a well-known and respected Scottish folk singer (formerly dueting with her brother Archie Fisher).

Joe, Russell and I landed in Newcastle one weekend in early September, were met at Newcastle Central by Forster, and taken to various abodes for the weekend. Meeting up that first evening, we agreed that we would put together sides to dance Morris and rapper. Now although neither of these traditions are performed to pipe music, it was one way of showing something of the dance traditions of England, besides having world-class pipers in the group.

We spent the weekend dancing around the working men’s club in colliery towns and villages near Newcastle, and I was introduced to the rigors of rapper sword dancing. The rapper dance steps are quite intricate – think of tap dancing or maybe even Riverdance, and you’ll get the idea – and I had no idea before that weekend of what was involved. I quickly learned the various moves, but the stepping alluded me for quite some time. Overhearing one old timer in one of the clubs criticizing my lack of stepping ability, one of the team – Les Williamson – quickly explained that I’d only been dancing rapper for a couple of hours. I think the old fella was quite impressed!

Traveling to Czechoslovakia
On the Monday we set off in an old Bedford minibus and a car for Harwich to take the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland, and the 970 km drive from there to Strakonice. We were rather bleary-eyed in the Hook of Holland, but that didn’t stop some impromptu dancing on the quayside.

Ray Fisher and Joe Smartt dancing an impromptu jig on the quay at Hook of Holland

We stopped for a night in a hostel in Offenbach near Frankfurt, continuing on the next day via Nuremberg and into Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Those were pre-Schengen days when we were stopped at the German border and informed, in no uncertain terms, that we should pay a special road tax or turn around and go home. Crossing into Czechoslovakia (a Communist country, just one year after the Soviet invasion after the Prague spring of 1968) was not as difficult as I guess we all had anticipated.

At our overnight stop in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, with Colin Ross and Forster Charlton on fiddle, and Ray Fisher playing the guitar

Crossing into Czechoslovakia

Our accommodation was not in Strakonice itself, but in a small village about ten or more kilometers away. Not that this was a problem, but since our participation in the festival was sponsored by the local brewery, the drive back at night (with wild boar crossing the road on one occasion) was not without incident. We had our midday and evening meals in a local factory, manufacturing textiles if I remember correctly. The food left a lot to be desired.

The castle is in the foreground

The festival itself involved both staged performances in the castle, as well as impromptu performances around the town. There were pipers and dancers from Brittany (from Brest and Concarneau), from Romania and Bulgaria, and from Czechoslovakia itself. The Brest pipe band, Kevrenn Brest Sant Marc, played the highland pipes, but the pipes from Romania and Bulgaria looked like the skin of a sheep for the bag, and the mouthpiece, drone and chanter fastened into the neck and front legs.

Kevrenn de Brest Sant Marc

Dancers from Concarneau, Brittany

Romanian or Bulgarian pipers

There was great camaraderie among all the groups, and lively competition. The highlight was the grand parade through the town, shown in the 2012 video above. The music and dancing were wonderful, especially the haunting Celtic melodies of the Breton band and dancers. It was great to be part of such a vibrant festival – and something quite unlike anything else I’d ever experienced.

Our rapper team – I’m on the far side, facing

On one occasion, each group was asked to send a delegate to a civic reception hosted by the town authorities. I drew the short straw, since the brewery sponsoring our stay had invited our group over to the brewery to sample some special lager they had prepared in our honor. I was disappointed to miss that, and to put up with what I expected to be a rather formal and somber afternoon of speeches. Yes, there were speeches, but there were also many toasts of very strong plum brandy or slivovitz from the mayor and his colleagues to us, but then becoming a free-for-all as each group member returned the compliment  and we began to toast each other. Needless to say it didn’t take long to become extremely intoxicated!

You can view a complete album of photos here.

All too soon our stay in Strakonice was over, and we headed west to the Hook of Holland and the ferry home. I kept in touch with Les Williamson for a couple of years, since we met through the Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festival. The Strakonice rapper team formed the nucleus of the Sallyport Rapper that is still going strong today (click here and here for stories that mention the Strakonice trip). The leader of the Brest pipe band, Gilles, sent me some tapes of their music, and a Christmas card in 1969.

Almost fifty years on, the memories are still vivid of that first trip abroad.

[1] Colin passed away in 2019 after a short illness. Here is a short obituary. A few years ago, after I published this blog post, I managed to share it with Colin and we exchanged emails. It was a few months after Ray died.


When I get older, losing my hair . . .

There really is still some hair there – but my forehead reflects the sunlight more each day

While not quite losing my hair – yet, it is receding and, so my wife tells me, getting a little thinner on top.

Not many years from now, however. I’m 64 – today! Not yet an official pensioner; that happens next year. However, I have been gainfully retired for the past 2½ years.

I thought it would be fun to look at which of the past 64 years have been significant for me – for a whole variety of reasons – and try and find out what else had happened on the world stage, so-to-speak. In my final seminar at IRRI in March 2010, about seven weeks before I retired, I presented some ideas about what I had done and accomplished over a 40 year career from 1969. It was rather interesting to discover some notable events for that year: Richard Nixon was inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States; Colonel Ghaddafi came to power in a coup (why did he never make himself a Field Marshal, at least a General, even though he covered himself in medals?); Charles de Gaulle resigned as President of France; and the Boeing 747 flew for the first time, followed about a month later by Concorde. And, of course, humans landed on the Moon for the first time in July. In November 1969, Sesame Street (home of the Muppets) was broadcast for the very first time. As a tribute to that magnificent program, this blog post is brought to you courtesy of the letters M m and J j and the numbers 6 and 4.

So, how does my chronology parallel other events? Click each year heading to see a full list of events. I’ve selected just a few for the narrative.

18 November 1948

I was born in November 1948 (just 30 years after the November Armistice that ended the First World War) in Knowlton House, Parson Street, Congleton, Cheshire (it’s now a nursing home for elderly residents).

It will be the centenary of the start of WWI in 2014; yet 1982 – when my younger daughter was born (Philippa was 30 in May) – seems like yesterday.

One year old

Do I share my birthday with anyone famous? A few: astronaut Alan Shepherd (first US astronaut in space in 1961); actor Owen Wilson; and William Schwenck Gilbert, English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame).

I was five this November; we’d celebrated The Queen’s coronation in June. I can remember that we had a children’s party of some sort, and all got dressed up. Not sure what my costume was meant to be. That’s me, fifth from the right, with a stick in my hand.

Mossley school

I also started school in September, attending Mossley C of E Primary (built in 1845), about two miles outside Congleton. The school is now used as a Community Center and a new school has been built nearby. Even when I was five, my elder brother Edgar (who is two years older) and I used to catch the bus by ourselves from the main street in Congleton out to Mossley. In the summer, I’d even walk home by myself – something that would not even be contemplated today for a small child. I still remember food rationing during these years, a legacy of World War II.

In the Philippines DZAQ-TV3 (now ABS-CBN) made its first broadcast becoming Asia’s first commercial television station.

65 St Edward St – our first home in Leek

In April, we moved to Leek, about 12 miles away to the south east of Congleton. And to a large extent I regard Leek as my home town. My father had been the photographer on the Congleton Chronicle, but set up his own photographic retail business in Leek, and remained in that profession for the next 20 years until he retired in 1976. Here’s a photo of 65 St Edward Street where we first lived. It’s a DVD store now.

1956 was also the year of the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. I can still remember petrol rationing.

I passed my 11-plus exam, and won a place at a Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent, about 14 miles from home. I had to catch a bus by 0750 each morning, change in Hanley, and hopefully get to school by 0900. After school at 1600 the journey home would take a little over an hour – bus connections permitting, and I’d usually be home by 1730 at the latest.

On reflection the teaching standards weren’t very high, and corporal punishment was doled out far too frequently – as I found out on numerous times, even passing out on one occasion after being strapped by the French teacher, Mr Joyce. Certainly gave him a fright, and he never hit me again.

A few years ago, while I was in the UK on business, and en route to Liverpool, I called in at the school and asked if I could have a look round. It had been 30+ years since I’d left, and someone very kindly did show me round. The school now advertises itself as a ‘specialist science college’, no longer has formal links to the Christian Brothers (thank goodness!), is co-educational, and felt far, far smaller than I remembered.

John F Kennedy was elected the 35th President of the United States in November, and only two years later we were embroiled in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I vividly remember that, and we were all aware of what could have happened on that fateful day 50 years ago (it was mid-afternoon at school) if the Russians had not backed down. In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

The Tokyo Olympics – and I had an emergency appendicitis operation in early October. Unfortunately I developed an infection, so instead of being off school for maybe a couple of weeks, I didn’t get back to school until just before Christmas. Played havoc with my school work and I never did really catch up in some subjects. Which showed the following year in my GCE results. Nevertheless, I did get into the Sixth Form in September 1965.

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in July. It was a good year for The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones released their debut album.

I surprised myself by passing all my A Level GCE exams – geography, biology, English literature, and general studies – but nothing with distinction. Still, I got my place to study botany and geography at the University of Southampton, and off I went in October, and began three of the happiest years of my life. I took up folk dancing – and particularly Morris dancing – with enthusiasm. I loved Southampton. It was a relatively small (ca. 4,000 students) university in the late 60s, had benefited from a period of infrastructure investment and expansion, and was full of optimism. It’s gone on to become one of the best universities in the UK.

On the international scene, there was the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in June (just as I was studying for and taking my A Level exams); we’ve been living with the consequences of that war ever since. And while I was at Southampton, NASA sent astronauts to the moon, landing for the first time in July 1969. I was attending a second-year botany field course in Norfolk, and we rented a TV – much to the annoyance of the course staff – to watch this historic event (that took place well after midnight if memory serves me well).


Graduation at Southampton University, with my Mum and Dad, July 1970

Graduation at Southampton University, with my Mum and Dad, July 1970

I actually managed to graduate from Southampton with a BSc degree – not as good as I hoped for but, in the long run, it didn’t hold me back. I was interviewed for a place on the MSc course at the University of Birmingham on genetic resources, and moved there in September – thus beginning my career-long work (one way or another) in genetic resources conservation and use.

In May, a massive earthquake hit the Ancash region of Peru, killing more than 47,000 people.

I did rather better academically at Birmingham than I had at Southampton, and gained my MSc in December. I had already been offered the opportunity of going to Peru for a year, but that was delayed due to funding negotiations around the formation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), to which the UK government was planning to commit. In the event, I stayed on at Birmingham until January 1973 and began a PhD with potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes.

England played Australia in the first ever One Day International cricket match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Tyrant Idi Amin came to power in Uganda.

A pretty momentous year. First, in early January, I moved overseas to Lima and joined the International Potato Center (CIP), to work on potatoes. In October, Steph and I were married in the Miraflores town hall, in one of Lima’s more affluent suburbs. It was a civil wedding, with just two witnesses – John and Marian Vessey.

And this is our marriage certificate (with some quirky spelling) listing incidentally the rights and obligations of husband and wife.

Our marriage certificate, 13 October 1973

In January, the UK (and Ireland and Denmark) joined the European Economic Community, that in 1993 would transmogrify into the European Union via the Maastricht Treaty (or should it now be the European Dis-Union?). The World Trade Center in New York City opened its doors in April.

PhD graduation at the University of Birmingham, 12 December 1975

We returned to the UK for a little over six months while I completed my PhD thesis and presented it for examination, which took place in October; the degree was conferred on 12 December. We also experienced the hottest summer I can remember in the UK (eclipsed the following year, apparently). We returned to Peru just after Christmas, in time for the New Year celebrations – always a highlight of the Peruvian calendar.

In April, Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. In June, Arthur Ashe became the first black tennis player to win the Men’s Championship at Wimbledon.

CIP posted me to Costa Rica (in Turrialba at CATIE) where I remained until November 1980. Much of my work was devoted to the establishment of a regional potato program, PRECODEPA, but I also did research on bacterial wilt, and breeding for the lowland tropics.

The Pol Pot regime seized power in Cambodia, North and South Vietnam united to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and Concorde made its first commercial flight.

Hannah a few days old, late April or early May 1978

Our first daughter, Hannah Louise, was born in April, in San José, Costa Rica. Living about 70 km from San José, it was certainly an early morning dash when Steph told me that the baby was on its way. We arrived to the clinic by about 0600, and Hannah was born around noon. A nurse woke me up to tell me the good news, but also to demand a name to enter on the birth certificate. She seemed a little put out when I told her I’d have to confirm that first with my wife. So Hannah Louise it was. Incidentally one of my best friends from Southampton days and his wife had a little girl a month or so later, and she was also named Hannah Louise!

On the international scene, Pope John Paul II was elected pope, succeeding John Paul I who had reigned for just 33 days. On 18 November, more than 900 people including more than 200 children died in the mass murder-suicide at Jamestown in Guyana.

I was interviewed for a Lectureship at the University of Birmingham in January, and we eventually moved back to the UK in March. I joined the Department of Plant Biology in the School of Biological Sciences on 1 April.

The Iranians released embassy hostages after 14 months of captivity. Arthur Scargill became President-elect of the National Union of Mineworkers in the UK .

Philippa, just a few hours old, 30 May 1982

Our second daughter, Philippa Alice, was born in May, in Bromsgrove, Worcs. I took Steph to the maternity hospital on the Saturday evening,  leaving Hannah under the care of a neighbor. I returned home on the understanding that the ward sister would phone me when ‘things started to hot up’. Just around 0700 on Sunday morning I received that call, woke Pat to come and look after Hannah again, and arrived back at the hospital just in time to see Phil make her appearance. What an experience.

It was unfortunately the time of the Falklands War between the UK and Argentina.

Towards the end of the 80s I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with higher education in the UK. So when a position announcement for the head of the Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines landed on my desk – I still don’t know who sent it to me – around September 1990, I decided to apply, and was called for interview in January 1991. All three interviewed candidates had an MSc and PhD from Birmingham – in genetic resources. I was appointed and joined IRRI in July, and remained there for almost 19 years.

The US (and allies) began the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. In June, just prior to moving to Asia, Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines, the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century.

Hannah graduated from Macalester College, St Paul, Minnesota with a BA (summa cum laude) in psychology. She joined the University of Minnesota to take her PhD in industrial and organizational psychology. Philippa started her undergraduate studies – also in psychology – at the University of Durham.

George W Bush was elected the 43rd President of the United States – and look where that got us!

I moved from the Genetic Resources Center to becomes IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications) or DPPC, taking responsibility for donor relations, fund raising, research planning, etc.

In one of the most daring and tragic acts of terrorism ever, the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed on 11 September.

Philippa graduated from Durham with a 2:1 BSc degree in psychology, and promptly left to work in Vancouver for a year.

The Iraq War was waged. And the Human Genome Project, started in 1990, was declared ‘complete’ – although a lot of work has been done subsequently to tidy things up.

Hannah married Michael, and received her PhD.

Hannah with her PhD supervisor, Prof Deniz Ones, University of Minnesota

Ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney turned 64!


Callum in June 2012

This was a mega year! First, I retired in April, and we returned to the UK.

Second, our first grandchild, Callum Andrew, was born in August (in Minneapolis, Minnesota).

Third, Philippa married Andi in Central Park in New York, in October.

And fourth, Phil was awarded her psychology PhD (for a study on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on short term memory in young adults) from Northumbria University, where she had first started work as a research assistant in 2005, before beginning her own study.

Just prior to us returning to the UK from the Philippines, the eruption of Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air traffic over a huge swathe of northern and western Europe. Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Dexter in September 2012

Our second grandchild, Elvis Dexter was born in September, delivered by dad Andi in what appears to have been a rather rapid home birth, in Newcastle Upon Tyne.

We fulfilled a long-held ambition in May, and went canyon-hopping in the American southwest – a trip of a lifetime (and I’ve been privileged to have visited many wonderful places around the world). On my birthday in November I received the official letter from The Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London nominating me for the OBE that I received the following February.

In March, following a massive coastal earthquake, a tsunami devastated the east coast of Japan.

At Buckingham Palace, 29 February 2012

I was made an Officer (OBE) of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in The Queen’s New Year’s Honours, and received my insignia from HRH The Prince of Wales at an investiture in Buckingham Palace on 29 February.

Zoe in September 2012

Our third grandchild, Zoë Isobel, was born in May in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

And in London, the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were staged to great acclaim, with Team GB winning an unprecedented number of gold medals.

So, as you can see, these latter years have been rather significant and busy. With our daughters happily settled in Minnesota and Newcastle, and grandchildren growing up rapidly, life is quite rosy as Steph and I look forward to a well-deserved retirement.

Are there degrees of tyranny?

The 20th century was a ‘good one’ for tyrants. There were certainly enough of them who we’d like to forget: Joseph Stalin and his Communist cronies, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi thugs, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Idi Amin in Uganda . . . et al.

All of them were responsible for the most awful human rights abuses, but particularly the use of extrajudicial and arbitrary killings on a large, even massive scale.

Of course there have been dictatorships in many countries, and some cling to power to this very day. But do they compare with the infamous individuals listed earlier? Surely the answer has to be not quite.

I’ve lived in two countries that were either under a dictatorship (Peru in the early 70s) or had recently come out of one (the Philippines after the Marcos regime). And I’ve had occasion, through my work in international agricultural research, to have visited many countries with less than savoury governments.

But as I read Martin Sixsmith’s recent book about Russia (first published in 2011 as a follow on from a BBC radio series), I did find myself wondering whether, in fact, there are degrees of tyranny, and if Josef Stalin was the biggest tyrant of them all.

Sixsmith’s book of about 550 pages, presents a 1000-year chronicle of Russian history, from its Viking origins to the present. But it’s the discussion of the 1917 revolution and the coming to power of the Bolsheviks, and its aftermath when Stalin came to power that is most compelling.

It is clear – just from the account of the methods Stalin (and his subordinates) used to control the Russian population, and conquered territories, as well as the statistics of the numbers of people summarily executed or forgotten in the gulags – that made me ponder the question about degrees of tyranny. Stalin was truly a monster. But was he worse than Hitler, for example? And is it correct even to ask the question?

Tyranny – even at a local small scale – is an abomination, a blight on society. Having now finished Sixsmith’s very readable account of Russian history, I’m left reeling at the scale of Stalin’s crimes – at home and abroad, actions carried out in the name of and supposedly in support of the proletariat.

Around the world . . . in 40 years. Part 1: Home is where the heart is.

The other day I was using TripAdvisor on Facebook to see how many countries I’d visited over the past 40 odd years, and was surprised to discover that it’s almost 90. Many of these visits were connected with my work one way or another. However, I’ve lived in three countries outside the UK:

  • in Peru from January 1973 to April 1976, and November 1980 to March 1981, with the International Potato Center (CIP), at its Lima headquarters; 
  • in Costa Rica, from April 1976 to November 1980, leading CIP’s regional program at that time, located at CATIE in Turrialba; and
  • in the Philippines, from July 1991 to April 2010, with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

In this series of stories, I will recall many of the places I’ve visited, and my impressions. In this first part, I focus on Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines. I’ll add more images to all posts as and when I am able to digitize the many slides that I have in my collection.

First foreign forays
But first things first. Until 1969, however, I had never been outside the UK. In September that year, I joined a group of Morris and sword dancers from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to participate in a bagpipe festival at Strakonice in Czechoslovakia. It was a novel experience for me to travel across Holland and southern Germany by road, seeing new sights (and sites). But more of this in another post.

In 1972, I attended a genetic resources conference organized by EUCARPIA – the European Association for Plant Breeding Research, held at Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey, south of Istanbul – quite exotic. Together with a group of other students from Birmingham, I stayed at an olive research institute at Bornova, some miles outside Izmir, rather than at the comfortable hotel in the city center where the conference was being held. One thing I do remember was the daily breakfast – a plate of stuffed olives, some goat’s milk cheese, crusty bread, and a glass of tea. I was a much fussier eater in those days, and was not taken with olives – quite the reverse today! We did get to visit the ancient ruins of Ephesus – a magnificent city. I returned to Izmir in the late 70s while I was working for CIP, and there was a regional meeting about potato production.

In January 1973 I moved to Lima, Peru, fulfilling an ambition I’d had since I was a little boy. Peru was everything I hoped it would be. It’s a country of so many contrasts. Of course the Andes are an impressive mountain chain, stretching the whole length of the country, and reaching their highest point in Nevado Huascarán (shown in the photo above), at over 22,000 feet.  Then there’s the coastal desert along the Pacific Ocean, which is bisected every so often with rivers that flow down from the mountains, creating productive oases, wet enough to grow rice in many places. And on the eastern side of of the mountains, the tropical rainforest drops to the lowlands of the Amazon basin, with rivers meandering all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles away.

Lima is a huge city today, with more than 8 million inhabitants; in 1973 it had perhaps a million or so. Situated in one of the world’s driest deserts, there is always a water problem. Goodness knows how the city authorities cope; it was a big problem 40 years ago. I first arrived to Lima in the dead of night and was whisked away to my pensión. It was a bit of a shock the following morning seeing all the bare mountains surrounding the city, even though I was staying in one of the more leafy and green suburbs, San Isidro. Flying into Lima in daylight, and driving into the city from the airport one is confronted by the reality of poverty, with millions now living in the shanty towns or pueblos jovenes that spread incessantly over the desert and into the coastal foothills of the Andes.

But Lima is a vibrant city, and the country is full of exquisite surprises. In 1973 there was a left-wing military junta governing Peru, and although there have been many democratically-elected governments since (and some more military ones as well) there was the major threat from terrorist groups like Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru in the 80s that made travel difficult around the country. Between 1973 and 1975 when I lived there it was relatively safe, and my work took me all over the Andes, collecting potatoes for the germplasm collection at CIP, and carrying out research in farmers’  fields.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu on a couple of occasions, and the market town of Pisac, as well as many of the archaeological sites on the Peruvian coast. Although I have traveled across the Nazca plain by road, and could see evidence of the famous lines even at ground level, I never did get to see them from the air – one ambition yet to be fulfilled. Getting to know Lima is a must, and visiting the many museums. The skyline of the second city Arequipa, in the south of the country is dominated by the volcano El Misti. And no visit to Peru is complete without a trip to Puno and Lake Titicaca at over 4000 m above sea level. Take your oxygen bottle, or try the mate de coca (an infusion made from the leaves of the coca plant) to cope with the altitude.

My work with IRRI took me back to Peru on several occasions in later years. While at Birmingham University in the 80s I had also been part of a four man review that traveled around Peru for three weeks looking at a seed potato project. I also had a research project with CIP, and on a couple of visits, I also did some work on cocoa, traveling to some native cocoa sites near Iquitos on the Amazon River, and also at Tarapoto. Unfortunately, a cocoa germplasm project I was advising the UK chocolate industry about, and some of my potato research, was affected by the activities of the terrorist groups mentioned earlier, and the drug dealers or narcotraficantes.

My wife and I were married in Lima in October 1973.

Click to read all my Peru stories, my CIP stories, and view a web album of Peru photos taken in 1973 and 1974.

Costa Rica
After three years in Peru, we moved to Costa Rica, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The continental divide, dotted with a number of active volcanoes, runs the length of the country, with tropical lowlands on the east Caribbean coast, and drier lowlands on the west Pacific. We lived in Turrialba, some 70 km or so, east of the capital San José. Our elder daughter Hannah was born in Costa Rica.

The volcanoes are spectacular, and my potato work took me almost every week to the slopes of the Irazú volcano, the main potato growing area of the country, and about 50 km from Turrialba. It dominates the horizon from San Jose, and its most famous recent activity was in 1963 on the day that President Kennedy landed in San José for a state visit. That eruption lasted for more than a year. But the volcanic activity is the basis of deep and rich soils on the slopes of the volcano.

Costa Rica has had an interesting history. After a short civil war in 1948 the armed forces were abolished, and the country invested heavily in social programs and education. It also established a nation-wide network of national parks, and has one of the biggest proportions of land dedicated to national parks of any country. In April 1980 Steph, Hannah and me were staying at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve when we received the sad news of my father’s death. We’d gone to Monteverde to try and see the resplendent quetzal – and how lucky we were. Magnificent!

In the 1970s, Costa Rica was a very safe place to live. San José was a small city; it had only about 250,000 inhabitants while we lived there. And the police did not carry any sidearms or other automatic weapons – only screwdrivers. Screwdrivers? Yes, to remove the plates from illegally parked cars! In the late 70s, when the Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza government was at its height in Nicaragua, many refugees came south over the border. And crime rates – along with house rentals – climbed steeply.

In the mid-90s I had opportunity to return to Costa Rica on a couple of occasions, and went hunting wild rices in the Guanacaste National Park in the northwest of the country, close to the frontier with Nicaragua. Ecotourism is a major activity, and with so many national parks to visit and a wealth of wildlife to observe, Costa Rica offers plenty for those interested in the outdoors.

The Philippines
Having spent a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham in the UK after leaving CIP, I began to get itchy feet towards the end of the 80s, and was offered a position at IRRI from July 1991. I moved then, and my family (my wife and two daughters, Hannah and Philippa) made the move just after Christmas.

Even today the Philippines is the easiest country to travel in – especially if you don’t have much free time. First of all, it’s spread over more than 7000 islands. But travel by road can be slow, and extremely frustrating. It certainly tested my patience for long enough – and I was driving mainly between Los Baños and Manila. For all the almost 19 years we lived in the Philippines, there were always roadworks on the road to Manila – now completed – and the highway also connects the port of Batangas on the south coast of Luzon with Manila. The volume of traffic is horrendous, and on the open road the slow-moving (and frequently stopping) tricycles and jeepneys don’t help with the traffic flow.

And because we took our annual home-leave in the UK, there wasn’t much other time for getting to know the Philippines., even though my wife and I lived in Los Baños for longer than we’d lived anywhere else. Each year we’d depart on home-leave and going home. On the return we would be coming home. Our home was provided by IRRI in a gated community some 10 minutes drive from the research center. It was built in the early 60s on the slopes of dormant volcano Mt Makiling. Los Baños is the thriving Science City of the Philippines, home to the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines (UPLB) and other important scientific research institutes, besides IRRI.

Our daughters attended the International School in Manila (ISM), and were bused into Manila early each day. By 1999, Philippa’s senior year, the school bus would leave IRRI Staff Housing at 0430 in order to reach the Makati campus by the start of school at 0715. The children would return by about 1630 or so, relax for a while, have dinner, then get down to homework, studying sometimes as late as midnight. Then up again at 0400. We were all glad when Philippa graduated. In 2002 ISM moved to a new (and more easily accessible) campus, several years after Hannah and Philippa had left, and a move that had been promised since about 1994.

Steph and I would get away to the beach as often as possible, about once a month. She would snorkel, and kept very detailed records over 18 years of the fish and corals that she observed in front of Arthur’s Place in Anilao, Batangas. I learned to scuba dive in 1993, and until we left the Philippines, that was my main hobby. Here are two more underwater videos from Anilao:

Finally in March 2009, we had the opportunity of visiting the world-famous rice terraces in the Ifugao province north of Manila. We went with a group of staff from my office. The journey both ways was tedious to say the least, taking almost 17 hours door-to-door on the return, with stops, even though the distance is less than 500 km. But it was worth it. The terraces are spectacular, and although it’s necessary to walk into the terraces at Batad, it’s well worth the effort. We stayed in Banaue, then traveled on to Sagada to see the famous caves with ‘hanging coffins’ and the local weaving. It was a short trip, but very memorable. Click here to open a web album.

We unfortunately did not get to see many of the fiestas that abound in the Philippines. But what we did see – every day – were the smiling faces of the lovely Filipino people. Yes, the Philippines was where our hearts were, for almost 19 years.

I’ll be posting other stories about the countries and places I’ve visited over the past 40 years, so please check from time-to-time.