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.

One thought on “When I get older, losing my hair . . .

  1. patsyj3621 says:

    Very nice Mike! To date your life has been quite eventful! What will be in store for you next……….stay tuned.


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