Hobbits can pass unseen by most if they choose which gives us a distinct advantage (Gandalf) . . .

Hobbit mania has gripped the media in recent weeks, as the release of Peter Jackson’s next blockbuster approached. In fact it was hard to get away from ‘all things Hobbit’. Fortunately, I was able to.

It seems that my namesake has enough footage in the can to release two more films – or was it that he plans to film two more? What can we expect? Gone With The Hobbit, Return of The Hobbit, True Hobbit?

Let me lay my cards on the table: I am NOT a Middle Earth, elvish, LOTR fan in any shape whatsoever. I’ve not read any of the books – and doubt I ever will – or seen any of the films. One of my daughters gave my wife a DVD some Christmases ago of the first LOTR film. I fell asleep.

I’d never heard of The Hobbit until I went to university in 1967. One of my fellow botany students, Allan Mackie, was a serious Hobbit fan. I couldn’t see the point.

Bust of JRR Tolkien in Exeter College, Oxford University

But on reflection, I should have known more about the LOTR and JRR Tolkien.

In 1960, I passed my 11-plus exam, and won a place to a Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, in Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent, a 28 mile or so daily round trip from my home in Leek. So what has this got to do with JRR Tolkien and his Middle Earth stories?

St Joseph’s was run (controlled would be a better description) by Irish Christian Brothers, whose education ethos came with a heavy dose of corporal punishment. But the school chaplain was none other than Fr JFR Tolkien, JRR’s eldest son. At the time that meant nothing to me, and even when the eminent professor was the guest of honour at the school prize-giving one year (I don’t remember the actual year, but probably between 1964 and 1966) there was no indication of the fame yet to come with The Hobbit and the LOTR.

In fact, what I do remember is this rather tall, gaunt, unsmiling gentleman making one of the most boring and tedious speeches it has been my misfortune to listen to. There was absolutely nothing of the inspiration that so many have commented on. Just the other day I listened to actor Robert Hardy waxing lyrical about his undergraduate days at Oxford and having JRR Tolkien as his tutor.

During my time at St Joseph’s I got to know Fr Tolkien quite well. Although my first impressions were of an austere, rather severe persona, he was, in fact, a gentle, kindly man. Before he died in 2003 he was sadly accused of – all without foundation as it turned out – child abuse some 40 years earlier when he was Scout master at a parish in Birmingham¹. Maybe the accusations against Fr Tolkien were a consequence of the publicity surrounding the release of the first LOTR film, and expectations of cashing in on the family wealth. A sad indictment of society.

¹ There may well have been more to these allegations than I realized when I first wrote this post on 23 December 2012. In an article that appeared in The Guardian on 13 December 2018, Cardinal Vincent Nichols (who used to be Archbishop of Birmingham) is reported to have covered up claims of abuse by Fr. Tolkien. Sad.

This article appeared in The Guardian on 28 April 2019, in which, it is claimed, there is a recording in which Fr Tolkien says he himself was abused as a boy.

Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness . . . Jane Austen

A couple of weekends ago, my wife baked a particularly delicious apple pie for dessert, and last week she made some apple pancakes, using the variety Bramley Seedling.

Grown only in the UK, the Bramley is a ‘cooking apple’ that makes the best pies. It produces large, green fruits (in this photo the apples are about 4 inches, 10 cm in diameter, but they can come much larger) that are just too tart to eat raw – well, for me at least. I’m not really sure if there’s a tradition of using special cooking varieties elsewhere, but in many of the countries I’ve visited, dessert apples are used in apple pies, which are somewhat too sweet for my palate.

Here’s what they have to say about the Bramley on the Bramley Apples web site:

Professional chefs and home cooks alike have long recognised that Bramleys are the best apple for cooking. But why is that? As with most things there is a scientific explanation . . .

In all foods, flavour is mostly determined by the level of sweetness and sharpness. In apples this is characterised by the balance between sugar and malic acid.

Dessert apples, or ‘eating apples’, have lower levels of acid and higher sugar content, giving them the sweet flavour that makes them delicious to eat – but also means they tend to lose their ‘appley’ flavour when cooked.

Bramley apples, however, are unique because they contain a higher acid content and lower sugar levels to produce a stronger, tangier tasting apple whose flavour is retained when cooked.

Texture is also important and Bramleys are again unique in producing a ‘melt in the mouth’ moist texture when cooked, while dessert apples can produce a chewy, dissatisfying texture because they contain up to 20% more dry matter than the Bramley.

The Good Housekeeping Institute, respected for its independent research work, has confirmed Bramley’s superiority over dessert apple varieties when cooked in popular recipes.

So where did this wonder apple come from? The Bramley Seedling was first grown from seed in the small Nottinghamshire town of Southwell in 1809. Here is a potted history of the Bramley, from the experiencenottinghamshire website:

The first tree grew from pips planted by a young girl, Mary Ann Brailsford in the 19th century. When a Mr Bramley bought the house and garden years later, he was approached by Henry Merryweather, who asked for cuttings from the tree. Mr Bramley agreed under the condition that the produce be named after him, and thus the Bramley apple was born. The original Bramley apple tree which stemmed from Mary Ann’s seeds, is still bearing fruit at over 200 years old, and has become a bit of a global tourist attraction. It can be found in the same garden in Southwell to this day.

But this heritage tree has faced some challenges – being blown over in a storm, and disease. Scientists from the University of Nottingham came to the rescue and, through tissue culture, produced 12 clones which are now grown in a small orchard on the Nottingham University Park.

So as we enjoyed our pie recently, I began waxing lyrical about all the wonderful apple varieties we’d seen at Berrington Hall (a National Trust property) in Herefordshire last year. Herefordshire is famous for its cider apples, and on our Berrington visit there was a display of old varieties.








There is certainly increased interest in the heritage varieties. The UK National Fruit Collection is kept at Brogdale, near Faversham in Kent (east southeast of London), and the University of Reading is responsible for its curation and maintenance. The Brogdale web site gives this useful information: [The National Fruit Collection] includes over 3,500 named apple, pear, plum, cherry, bush fruit, vine and cob nut cultivars. The collection is owned by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and is part of an international programme to protect plant genetic resources for the future.

Yet, around 1990 the whole collection was under threat of closure, but was saved after HRH The Prince of Wales got involved.

So where did all these apple varieties come from? Wild apples grow in the mountains of west and central Asia, and Nikolai Vavilov reported great diversity in apples and other rosaceous tree fruits in the region of Almaty (‘City of Apples’) in Kazakhstan. The species Malus sieversii is now seen as the wild relative of the cultivated apple. The apple genome was sequenced in 2010 (based on the Golden Delicious variety), apparently confirming the progenitor status of M. sieversii. With all this diversity in the wild populations there must have been much outcrossing between forms and introgression. Yet, European orchards are often quite uniform because apple trees were cultivated through grafting.

Apples were taken to North America in colonial times. Do you know the story of Johnny Appleseed? I first heard the story when I was a small boy. Born John Chapman (26 September 1774 – 18 March 1845), he introduced and established nurseries of apple seedlings in several states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois). At one time, North American orchards were considered to be much more diverse than their European counterparts, and the Johnny Appleseed story certainly gives credence to this notion.

It’s also good to know that science is actively devoted to the preservation of heritage varieties around the world. Where would we be without that apple a day to keep the doctor away?

I wonder what apple varieties Jane Austen used?

The Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse . . .

Are you familiar with this delightful poem? It’s been around for a long time, and was first published – anonymously – in 1823. For many decades there was uncertainty, controversy even, as to the poem’s author.

Although authorship has been claimed by the family of Henry Livingston, Jr. (1748-1828), the most widely accepted author is Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), an American professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at Columbia College, the forerunner of Columbia University.

Well, whoever wrote The Night Before Christmas, it has become a firm favorite in households around the world. It also gave us the images of Santa that are familiar everywhere.

And just recently, I came across a rather dog-eared copy of the poem that I remember from my childhood. According to my eldest brother Martin, he thinks it has been in our family since 1942 or thereabouts, before I was born.

Anyway, I used to read it to my daughters when they were small. I heard from a friend recently on Facebook who told me (after I’d posted a copy of the book), ‘My father has read this to us every year on Xmas Eve since I can remember. Still does and the youngest kid is 47!‘ What a lovely tradition.

Just click on the next image to open a copy (a PDF file) of the version that the Jacksons have treasured since the dark days of the Second World War.

But can you believe that a Canadian publisher released an updated version in September having deleted references to and images of Santa smoking a pipe, arguing it would limit children’s exposure to images of smoking? Whatever next!

And talking of traditions – well, we celebrated many at IRRI in the Philippines during my years there. As the staff are from all over the world, we had many opportunities to come together and enjoy each other’s festivals, mostly in the last quarter of the year: the Hindu festival of light, or diwali;  the Chinese mooncake festival; the end of Ramadan, or Eid-ul-Fitr; Halloween (with lots of trick or treats); Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November; and Christmas and New Year, of course.

The Philippines is a great place to celebrate Christmas – it’s so exuberant. We always listened out for the first Christmas music in the malls, often by the last weekend in August or first weekend in September. And the spirit of Christmas continues until the following February. The parol is one of the visual delights among Filipino Christmas decorations – which you can see during the opening and ending sequences of this video (and just watching it makes me feel very nostalgic and appreciate how much I enjoyed living and working in the Philippines).

I just had to have a parol to take back to the UK when I retired in 2010, and since then it has been hung in our porch at Christmas for everyone to enjoy. But this is filmed against a background of snow – so different from the tropical conditions in Manila!

Getting back to Christmas at IRRI. A number of staff take their annual leave from mid-December, especially those from the Antipodes, and parts of Asia. So it became a tradition for the Director General and his wife to host a Christmas party on the second Sunday of December, especially for all the children, and have Santa Claus make an appearance and distribute presents to one and all. One of the happiest responsibilities I had for about a decade was to dig out my Santa suit each year – and my make-up, and put in an appearance as Santa. From about mid-September onwards I’d let my beard and moustache grow so that by early December it was quite bushy. Although my hair and beard are mostly white now, a little make-up always added to the impression. During the 1990s, the role of Santa had been taken by my old friend, the late Bob Huggan, and then Bob Zeigler (now Director General) when he was a Program Leader.

No reindeer and sleighs in the Philippines – so we had to improvise. On a couple of occasions I arrived by tricycle. Another time it was on the front of a jeepney. In 2008, it was a water buffalo or carabao. Here are four videos (all made by my good friend and colleague Gene Hettel, Head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services), from 2003 to 2008, of Santa’s arrival at the IRRI Christmas Party at Staff Housing.

Happy days! Merry Christmas! Ho, ho, ho . . .