A dog named HMV . . .

At the beginning of this week, it was announced that the high street chain HMV – vendors of CDs, DVDs, and computer games – had gone into administration. Whether or not it will survive is very much in the balance, although news reports today suggest that some buyers are interested in parts of the business and some stores.

HMV is an iconic brand and has an impressive trademark – the fox terrier listening to a wind-up gramophone. It’s interesting to see how that image has changed over the decades – today’s is much more stylized. But the original is based on a painting by Francis Barraud. The fox terrier was named Nipper, and he has quite a story.

The Gramophone Company acquired rights to the painting from Barraud in 1899, but it wasn’t used on records until 1909.

Well, the only reason I bring this all up, is that the name Chem that my parents gave their Jack Russell terrier is derived from His Master’s Voice (HMV). How can that be? Easy, really.

Chem joined our family in 1964, and it didn’t take long for her to acquire her name – because she looked just like the HMV dog. HMV? ‘Aych-Em-Vee’ – ‘Ay-Chem-Vee’ – Chem!

Chem 019

Chem 017

Now there’s quite a debate among my two elder brothers and me as to who actually chose the name. Each takes credit, but sadly, they are mistaken. It was me.

Chem was a smashing little dog, full of spirit, and a great companion for my parents. In 1978 she was put to sleep at the ripe old age of 14 after developing a stomach tumour. Sadly missed and fondly remembered, even after all these years.

Chem 016

Around the world . . . in 40 years. Part 2. Winter days in Santiago

During the years that I lived in Lima (1973-March 1976) I didn’t visit any other country in South America. However, once I moved to Costa Rica in April 1976, I traveled extensively in Central America, Mexico, and out to the Caribbean islands (more of those in a later posts). And from Costa Rica I also made my first excursions to Brazil and Chile; while I was working in the Philippines, I also got to travel once again to Brazil and Peru on more than one occasion, and also to Caracas, capital of Venezuela.

But let me tell you about a visit to Santiago in Chile during July 1979 while I was working for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Costa Rica.

Nelson Estrada

Nelson Estrada

I was asked by my boss in Lima, Ken Brown, to join a small team (with two CIP colleagues Drs Oscar Malamud and Nelson Estrada, who worked in Lima) to review some of the activities and strategy of the Chilean National Potato Program (INIA, the government agricultural research institute). While the potato growing regions of Chile are south of Santiago, the five day review was scheduled only for office and laboratory visits in the capital.

I flew down to Santiago from San José via Panama City, picking up an overnight LAN Chile flight in Panama. It had just the one stop en route – in Lima, where I had the opportunity of phoning my boss at CIP and telling him I was on the way south. I had traveled down from mid-summer in Costa Rica to mid-winter in Chile, and it was quite a shock to the system. I hadn’t experienced a cold climate for several years, seeing all the trees bare of leaves, and a nip in the air. There were also street vendors roasting chestnuts in Santiago.

Arriving in Santiago around noon, an INIA driver took me to my hotel, and agreed to pick me up later that evening to return to the airport to meet my two Lima-based colleagues, whose flight was arriving at about 8.30 pm. That evening at the airport, I was a little puzzled why it was so busy as there didn’t seem to be many flights departing or arriving.  I decided to go outside and have a look at the airport apron (something you could do in those pre 9-11 days), and I saw there was quite a large crowd, that spontaneously broke into applause. It was then that I saw Chile’s dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, stepping down from his air force plane that had just arrived, and being met by government officials – and a large crowd of fervent Pinochet supporters had gone to the airport to greet him. This was less than six years after he had seized power in a coup that toppled the democratically-elected government of left-wing politician Salvador Allende in September 1973. And we all know what horrors that led to in Chile. But Pinochet’s government was firmly in control in 1979 – everything seemed calm in Santiago.

I don’t actually remember too much about the potato program review – it must have gone quite well, because on the last evening the head of INIA took us all to a very fine restaurant called Enoteca. Now I’ve looked for this restaurant on the web, and it looks like it’s undergone some major changes since I was there more than 30 years ago. The restaurant was also a ‘Chilean wine library’, housed in an old monastery, on a hill overlooking the city. It was  a fantastic view, and the meal was excellent. In the basement, all the wines produced in Chile were on display, available for tasting, and you could then choose one (or more) to have with your meal. Is it now called the Camino Real, on the Cerro San Cristobal in the Parque Metropolitano?

But what I remember most was the entertainment. In those days I spoke quite fluent Spanish – it’s still there in the recesses of my brain, but a little rusty. These two musicians, with guitars, wearing short dark jackets, broad black hats, came into the room and began to sing, moving between the tables, asking for requests, and stopping to chat with the guests around each table. At our table were our Chilean hosts, of course, and my two colleagues and me. What I’ve forgotten to mention is that Oscar and Nelson were Argentinian and Colombian, respectively. The musicians greeted and welcomed each of us, but with Oscar they had some fun. In 1979, tensions were still high as Chile and Argentina had been to the brink of war in 1978 over the Beagle Channel in the far south of both countries.

So‘, says one of the musicians to Oscar, ‘from Argentina, eh? Welcome, welcome. And isn’t it stupid‘, he continued, ‘that two great countries like Chile and Argentina, with very similar traditions and history and background, should be on the verge of war. I have this vision‘ he emphasized, ‘that one day our two nations will be united, and called Chile!

It brought the house down. Doesn’t translate so well into English, but at the time, we almost fell off our chairs we were laughing so much.

There are two other things I remember particularly about this trip. First, I was meandering down one of the main shopping streets when I heard ABBA’s Chiquitita for the first time, emanating from a record store – it had just been released. But my two colleagues didn’t go shopping for souvenirs like me. Instead they headed to the nearest butcher and bought enough beef, securely wrapped in plastic bags, to fill a 20 kg suitcase each. In those days there was a shortage of beef in Lima.

My stay in Chile was all too short. I would love to return, and visit the regions south of Santiago where Chile’s great wines are produced, to visit the potato growing areas around Puerto Montt, and close to one of the centers of origin and diversity of the potato, the Isle of Chiloé, and further south still to the land of snow-capped peaks, glaciers,  and fjords.

The missing monarchs . . .

Although I studied botany and geography as an undergraduate, and then went on to complete graduate degrees in botany, I have often hankered to become an historian. For the past decade much of my reading material has been history – I devour almost anything that looks interesting, and I actively seek out books by authors who I have already enjoyed. And when I retired I did consider taking another undergraduate degree in history.

I find the 18th century a particularly interesting one, because of the significant social changes and transition from an rural-agricultural society to an urban-industrial one. But I don’t focus on that century exclusively.

I have begun to find medieval history rather fascinating, and it comes to mind that the 15th century must be the most violent perhaps in our history. The century began with the usurpation of Richard II’s throne by Henry IV, there was a continuation of the wars with the French, with remarkable success under Henry V (despite the success at Agincourt in 1415, all was lost less than a generation later under the more pacific Henry VI), and of course the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

The most brutal and bloody battle of those wars was the Battle of Towton in March 1461, when Yorkist Edward IV defeated the troops of Henry VI. It’s said that more than 28,000 soldiers lost their lives. But despite its tragic cost, I read somewhere that there was proportionately greater loss of life during the English Civil Wars from 1642-1651 than in any other conflict in these islands. No doubt the Black Death of the late 14th century must also have been a serious genetic bottleneck for the population at large to survive.

But I digress. We know the burial sites for all English monarchs from William the Conqueror until the accession of James VI and I in 1603, for the Stuart kings and queens of both England and Scotland, and monarchs of the United Kingdom from 1714 onwards when George I (great grandson of James VI and I through his eldest daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia, the so-called Winter Queen) came to the throne.

With the exception of two – but that may be about to change.*

Richard_III_earliest_surviving_portraitI refer of course to Edward V (never-crowned elder son of Edward IV, and one of the Princes in the Tower) and Richard III.

It’s always thought that the princes, Edward and his brother Richard, were murdered on the orders of Richard III when he, shall we say, extended his powers as Lord Protector, and had himself crowned king in 1483. Although skeletons thought to be those of the princes were found in the Tower in 1674 and later re-interred in Westminster Abbey on the orders of Charles II, we cannot be sure that these remains are theirs.

Our image of Richard III – who was widely admired, and loved even, in his northern lands during his lifetime – comes down to us from Shakespeare and Tudor propaganda. After the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, when Richard III was killed, Henry Tudor (who became Henry VII) established the Tudor dynasty on the flimsiest of claims, and he and his son, Henry VIII, did their best to eliminate any possible Yorkist rivals (and any others who might have a better claim to the throne than themselves). Best not to think of Laurence Olivier’s cinema portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III, although I fear that’s the wicked image many of us continue to carry in our minds.  Of course there are those who have always felt that Richard III was maligned.

Now although there’s a tomb for Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, there’s no body – it was lost after Bosworth, but reportedly buried in Greyfriars priory in Leicester that was subsequently destroyed, and now the site of a car park.

And that’s what we hope to find out very soon. Bringing together the best of modern science: GIS, geophys (as Time Team‘s Tony Robinson would say) to explore underground structures, carbon dating, and DNA analysis (presumably of mitochondrial DNA), a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester descended some months ago on Greyfriars car park in the city. Very soon they discovered a skeleton that had obviously undergone some trauma, as well as showing a deformation of the spine, or scoliosis, that Richard was reported to suffer from.

Could these be the remains of Richard III, and if so, where should he be reburied? Soon we will find out, once the carbon dating and DNA analysis are completed by the beginning of February. How exciting! Reports leaking to the media are definitely supporting the Richard III identity. Here’s a link to a recent interview given by the project team.

If we have found our last remaining monarch, where should he be buried? The Ministry of Justice will make a decision, it’s said, next week. In any case, one of the conditions of the excavation and exhumation of the skeleton was that any remains would be re-interred in Leicester. And as I mentioned earlier, he already has a tomb in the cathedral, albeit empty. The residents of York would like him buried in York Minster, and there are those who argue he should be buried alongside other monarchs in Westminster Abbey in London. After all, that’s where Richard’s queen, Anne, is buried.

So, fingers crossed, we’ll soon have an answer to a long-standing mystery, and one that modern science is helping to solve.

* Today (4 February 2013) the archaeologists at the University of Leicester have announced that the skeleton unearthed in the Greyfriars carpark in Leicester is indeed that of King Richard III.

Orcas are social animals . . .

Surprisingly, there are many cetacean (that’s whales, porpoises and dolphins to you and me) visitors to British waters. One of the largest is the killer whale (Orcinus orca), also known as the orca (of Free Willy fame). Here’s a map where you can see whales in the UK.

Over the past three nights The One Show (BBC, at 19:00) has aired a series of films, presented by naturalist Mike Dilger about a pod of resident orcas off the coast of west Scotland, between the mainland, the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These are not listed on the map I mentioned before.

Filmed several months ago, during much better and calmer weather – in some shots the sea was as calm as a millpond – the film crew caught up with a pod of four orcas, and took some stunning footage.

North Uist

The Outer Hebrides, with Lewis and Harris to the north, with North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra to the south. The northern tip of the Isle of Skye, and other islands of the Inner Hebrides are shown on the right of the map.

Now what’s particularly interesting is that not only is this pod resident in this region (and also ranges as far as the west coast of Ireland), but the individuals have also been identified. One of the bulls is thought to be at least 40 years old. And, based on some observations of their teeth (conical and not worn down to the gum) this pod could have originated from Antarctic populations that visited the west coast of Scotland, and stayed.

Orcas are stunning, beautiful, and highly intelligent animals, and have been featured in at least two David Attenborough series, the most recent being Frozen Planet.

In the Dilger reports, he travelled with his crew on a chartered vessel owned by someone who knows the waters around the Isle of Skye, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides, yet he’d never ever seen an orca. And this reminded me of my first visit to the Outer Hebrides in the summer of 1966 at the age of 17.

I was a keen birdwatcher, and decided to visit a newly-opened reserve, Balranald, run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) on the island of North Uist. Packing my tent and sleeping bag on my back, and other supplies, I hitch-hiked from my home in Leek to Scotland, where my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline lived in Rutherglen, just south of Glasgow. I stayed with them for a couple of nights or so, then took my first ever flight, on a British European Airways (BEA) Vickers Viscount turboprop from Glasgow (then Glasgow Abbotsinch Airport) to Benbecula, the island between North and South Uist, and connected to each by a causeway. The flight must have taken an hour.

That first night I actually camped by the side of the road on Benbecula, but the next day I hitched my way over the causeway to North Uist and the village of Hougharry on the west side of the island where I understood the newly-appointed and temporary RSPB warden was living. I don’t remember his name; he’d just graduated in geography from the University of Hull, and was lodging with a Mrs MacDonald (MacDonald is rather a common name there). I set my tent up in the centre of the village, and spent three or so very happy days tagging along with the warden on his rounds. I was even invited to dinner on a couple of occasions by his landlady.

Red-necked_PhalaropeThe main reason for visiting Balranald – and why the reserve had apparently been established in the first place – was to observe two particular bird species: the corncrake (one of the few breeding sites in the UK then) and a rare summer visitor, the red-necked phalarope (which, it seems, is no longer on the Balranald list). I heard the corncrakes, but never saw them, nor the phalarope, more’s the pity. But there was plenty else to see.

And one day, I was invited to join the warden and a local fisherman to visit a small rocky island (maybe Causamul), a mile or more from the shore. And as we were passing through quite choppy seas we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a large (maybe 10-15 individuals) pod of killer whales. I was dumbstruck, if not a little concerned. There we were, in a small boat, surrounded by water and whales, and all I could think of was their (undeserved perhaps) reputation for aggression and ferocity. But what a wonderful sight! Was this a family pod just passing through, or were they related to the pod of orcas that’s now resident in the area? Who knows? After the last of the film reports on The One Show last night, Mike Dilger told the viewers that orcas had been seen recently on the north coast of North Uist. Knowing how rare any sighting of orcas is these days, I feel privileged for my 1966 experience.

What is the link between Jeff Lynne, Armchair Theatre, and Hobart, Tasmania?

Jeff_Lynne-Armchair_TheatreIn 1990, Jeff Lynne released his first solo album – Armchair Theatre. I’ve been a fan of Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) for many years. During the 70s I used to listen to cassette tapes of ELO’s Greatest Hits that my brother-in-law Derek had recorded for me from his vinyl LPs. So many great tracks: Mr Blue Sky, Wild West Hero, Confusion, I’m Alive, and Calling America, among many.

I didn’t have a CD player in those days, so my first copy of Armchair Theatre was a cassette tape version, and I almost wore it out in the first few months. Seven songs were Jeff Lynne originals, including the excellent Lift Me Up.

One, Blown Away, was a collaboration with Tom Petty (with whom he’d later form the great Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison), another was written by Jesse Stone (Don’t Let Go), and two others were iconic compositions: Stormy Weather (by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen) and September Song (by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill).

When I moved to the Philippines in July 1991 I treated myself to a new Pioneer mini-audio system, with tuner, cassette deck and CD player. Before I left the UK, I purchased my first two CDs: Greatest Hits by Fleetwood Mac, and another of the same name by the Eurythmics (I’m a great Annie Lennox fan). I shipped my LPs (and deck) and all my cassette tapes, including Armchair Theatre.

Everything was fine for a few months, but quite soon I began to detect a deterioration in sound quality, and discovered that the dreaded mould was beginning to grow all over the tapes. In fact, in the very humid Los Baños environment, many things were attacked by mould, and we eventually lost quite a number of audio tapes, and VHS tapes.

One of these was Armchair Theatre, so around December 1996 or 1997 I decided to replace it with a CD version (7599-26184-2). But to my disappointment, I discovered that it was no longer listed for sale by Reprise Records.

Where to find a copy? Surely someone, somewhere would have a CD for sale? I did a thorough Internet search (pre-Google) and located just one CD – in Hobart, Tasmania! And this story came back to me earlier this morning because Tasmania was mentioned twice on the BBC news, with reports of the devastating bush fires there, and the defeat of British tennis player Laura Robson in the first round of the Hobart International.

I’m not entirely sure of the name of the CD store in Hobart – I think it was Aeroplane Records on Victoria Street. I may be wrong. Anyway, I contacted the proprietor by email, and ‘did the deal’. But I still wasn’t sure how to have it delivered to the Philippines. I was slightly concerned that it might disappear in a ‘customs black hole’ in Manila, and wondered if it might be better to have it sent to the UK instead.

Jean-Louis Pham

But then I had a huge stroke of luck. By coincidence, one of my colleagues in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, Dr Jean-Louis Pham, was taking his family to Australia for the Christmas break that year, and would be spending more than in week in Tasmania – in Hobart. And it transpired that their hotel was just around the corner from the CD store! My CD was left at the hotel reception for the Phams, and Jean-Louis duly carried it back to the Philippines for me in early January.

And I’ve been enjoying the music ever since. As I said earlier, Jeff Lynne went on to form the Traveling Wilburys with others, has produced records for his fellow Wilburys, and obtained full rights to the ELO name and brand. He released Zoom under the ELO name in 2001, and did all vocals, backing vocals, electric guitars, bass, keyboards, cello, and drums himself (even though there were some guest musicians).

Funny how a news sound bite can bring such memories flooding back.

Like a duck to water . . . scuba diving in the Philippines

Late afternoon in front of Arthur’s Place, Anilao
(with Maricaban Island in the distance)

I’ve never been one for competitive sport, or strenuous outdoors exercise. No fell or hill walking for me, nor rock climbing, potholing, or other like pursuits.

So it was rather out of character that I took to scuba diving in the Philippines with such enthusiasm. Although I’d lived in the Tropics before moving to the Philippines in 1991, in Peru, I only went occasionally to the beach south of Lima during the summer months from January to March; and when we lived in Costa Rica, the best beaches were hours away by road.

In the Philippines, on the other hand, quite a number of IRRI staff had learned to scuba dive, and spent weekends away, either in Anilao (about 90 km or so south of Los Baños) or at Puerto Galera on Mindoro, the next island south of Luzon.

In fact, when we did go to the beach in Puerto Galera for the first time, in February 1992 (just a few weeks after Steph, Hannah and Philippa had joined me from the UK), I’d never even snorkeled before! So the last thing on my mind was the idea of taking a scuba diving course. Snorkeling was fine – once I’d got the hang of it, and learned to relax and actually breathe with my face in the water. So we invested in masks, boots and fins, and started visiting Anilao about once a month. Our first resort was Arthur’s Place, established by local dive master and entrepreneur Arturo Abrigonda and his wife Lita. Arthur’s Place was quite modest in 1992, just a few rooms available. And since there was no telephone at that time, making a reservation was rather hit-and-miss. In fact, it was only possible to reach the resort from Anilao village by outrigger canoe or banca, which took about 30 minutes or so. Eventually, the road was opened up, the mobile phone network spread to include the Mabini peninsula, and Arthur’s Place even had email and a web presence. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My elder daughter Hannah took a NAUI dive course in 1992, not long after we first went to Puerto Galera (my one and only visit there). She’d have been about 14 or 15 at the time. There was a group of IRRI staff and children taking a course, and the dive instructors came down to the staff housing where we had a 20 m pool to conduct the theory classes and confined water exercises. The open water exercises and final certification were carried out at Anilao. Well, for a year I watched Hannah getting ready for one of her dives each time we went down to Anilao, and began to wonder what it would be like.

Mario Elumba - a recent pic

Mario Elumba – a recent pic

And my opportunity came in March 1993 when a group of us got together to arrange dive classes with two PADI instructors – Boy Siojo and Mario Elumba. I took to scuba diving like a duck to water, and I have to say it has been one of the best things I have ever done. Including my four open water exercises dives (just prior to receiving my Open Water Diver certification) I completed 356 dives, making my first on 13 March 1993, and my last (just before I retired from IRRI and returned to the UK) on 14 March 2010. I only dived in the Anilao area – there’s just so much to see, and in any case, as Steph did not dive but loved just to snorkel, there was no reason to go elsewhere. The reefs just in front of Arthur’s Place were ideal for this, and for about 18 years she kept quite detailed records of what she observed, some 100-150 m either side of Arthur’s Place.

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

Steph checking her records after another successful snorkel

I also kept a detailed log of all my dives, who I dived with, where we dived, the conditions, and how long each dive lasted. For the first few years, my main dive buddy was Arthur. Most weekends I would complete three dives (very occasionally four, and exceptionally five). But three dives was a comfortable number: a morning and afternoon dive on the Saturday, and an early morning dive (usually to Kirby’s Rock) on the Sunday morning (that was always followed by a great plate of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee).

Sunday morning - post Kirby's. Bacon and eggs on the table.

Sunday morning – post Kirby’s. Bacon and eggs on the table.

We stayed at Arthur’s Place as often as we could  but when full, we had to stay at other resorts along the coast. However, I guess we stayed at Arthur’s more than 95% of the time, and by the time we left the Philippines, we had become the longest term clients at the resort. So much so, that Lita’s younger daughter Joanne invited me to be one of the ‘godfathers’ or ninong at her wedding in January 2010. Steph and I were the only non-Filipinos at the wedding – a great honour.


There are many great dive sites around Anilao, but my two favorites have to be Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks. I think Arthur was one of the pioneers of the conservation strategy along the coast, and the development of many dive resorts led, quite quickly, to an overall increase in health of the many reefs, because the presence of divers (a considerable economic benefit to the local communities  reduced the incidence of dynamite and cyanide fishing.

One or two sites were famous for their fierce currents, especially Beatrix and Bahura. Both Kirby’s Rock and Seepok Wall had impressive walls to explore. At Kirby’s it is possible to descend about 140 feet to the bottom of one of the walls – which I did many times. The feeling of the water pressure, the (general) clarity of the water (many times over 100 feet of visibility), and the wealth of marine life make this a special dive site for me.

Nudibranchs at Mainit Point,
27 March 2004

There’s so much I could write about. We often saw white-tipped reef sharks, and my particular bugaboo was the giant triggerfish, a particular aggressive beastie that has chased us around the reef from time to time. The myriad of brightly coloured shoals of small fish, especially the butterfly fish in all their diversity, the jacks, and tuna, the occasional turtle, the soft corals and nudibranchs – what sights on a bright morning to make one’s heart sing. And the big advantage as far as I was concerned – no-one could phone me or send me an email, or bother me about work whatsoever, when I was diving.

L to r: me, Clare, Lito, and Judy, in front of Arthur’s Place, 4 May 2003, just after diving at Kirby’s Rock

Sadly Arthur died of cancer in 2002, but in any case once I had gained some diving experience I did not really need him to be my dive buddy. I used to take Hannah and Philippa diving (Philippa learned to dive in January 1995 when she was 12), and for many years I used to buddy with one of the International School Manila teachers, Judy Baker, or Clare O’Nolan, the wife of IRRI’s IT Services manager Paul. Lito Bonquin became the resident dive master at Arthur’s Place in the late 1990s, and he was the person I dived with most over my almost 18 years of diving. He was very experienced and a safe buddy to dive with – and we had great fun exploring familiar sites.

Lito and me after my last dive (at Kirby’s Rock) on 14 March 2010

Do I miss scuba diving? From time-to-time, especially on a grey winter morning, or after someone at Arthur’s Place has posted a particularly nice photo on the Facebook page. I’m pleased I had the opportunity of taking up this great sport. I enjoyed diving with most folks I came into contact with, but there were one or two (including some of my IRRI colleagues – no name, no pack-drill  who I was less than enthusiastic to dive with, because I just didn’t feel safe buddying with them  And I was quite an experienced diver.

I remained an Open Water Diver – I had no interest in gaining further certification as an Advanced Diver, or rescue, wreck or whatever diver. I still have my mask (with its prescription lenses), my boots and fins, and my wet suit. Maybe I’ll get the chance to dive again some day, and if I do get back to the Philippines before I’m too old to enjoy diving again, I reckon there’ll be a welcome for me at Arthur’s Place, and marine friends at Kirby’s Rock and Twin Rocks might ‘realize’ their old ‘buddy’ is back in town.


It was 40 years ago today . . .

News item in The Birmingham Post, 2 January 1973

News item in The Birmingham Post, 2 January 1973

One evening in February 1971 I received a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes who was head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham, and Course Director for the MSc on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I’d begun my studies at Birmingham in September 1970 after graduating some months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc in environmental botany and geography. He asked me if I was interested in working in Peru for a year. Well, it had been my ambition for many years to visit Peru, and here was my chance.

Jack was a world-renowned authority on the potato, its taxonomy and origins in the Andes of South America. And on the day that he phoned me, he had just returned from a two month expedition to Bolivia to collect samples of wild potato species. He had been joined on that expedition by his close collaborator from Denmark, Dr Peter Hjerting, and one of his PhD students, Phillip Cribb (who went on to become an orchid expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens – Kew).

Dr Richard L Sawyer, Director General of CIP, 1971-1991

Dr Richard L Sawyer, Director General of CIP, 1971-1991

The expedition also received logistical support from the North Carolina State University-Peru USAID project, led at that time by Dr Richard Sawyer who would go on to found and become the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in October 1971.

Peruvian potato expert, Dr Zosimo Huaman

While in Lima at the start and end of the expedition, Jack has stayed with Richard and his wife Norma. Richard talked of his vision to found CIP, and that he wanted to send a young Peruvian to study on the MSc course at Birmingham. That was Zosimo Huaman, who would go on to complete his PhD with Jack, and stay with CIP for the next 20 or more years. Zosimo was helping to manage a collection of native varieties of potato from Peru that the USAID project had taken over, and which would pass to CIP once that institute was open for business.

But if Zosimo went off to the UK, who would look after the potato collection? Richard asked Jack if he knew of anyone from Birmingham who might be interested in going out to Peru, just for a year, while Zosimo was completing his master’s studies. ‘I think I know just the person’, was Jack’s reply. And that’s how Jack came to phone me that February evening over 40 years ago.

But it wasn’t quite that simple.

There was the question of funding to support my year-long appointment, and Richard Sawyer was hoping that the British government, through the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development – DfID) might cough up the support. The intention was for me to complete my MSc and fly out to Peru in September 1971. In the event, however, my departure was delayed until January 1973.

By February 1971, an initiative was already under way that would lead to the formation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) later that same year, and the ODA was contemplating two issues: whether to join the CGIAR, and whether to fund a position at CIP on a bilateral basis, or on a multilateral basis if it became a member of the CGIAR. But that decision would not be made before my expected move to Peru in September.

At what became a pivotal meeting in London in mid-1971, Jack argued – convincingly as it turned out – that he’d identified a suitable candidate, me, to join CIP’s genetic resources program, and that if some funding support was not found quickly, I’d likely find a job elsewhere. And so ODA agreed to support me at Birmingham on a Junior Research Fellowship for 15 months until December 1972, and that if negotiations to join the CGIAR went smoothly, I could expect to join CIP in January 1973. In the interim, Richard Sawyer did come through Birmingham and I had the chance to meet him, and for him to give me the once over. All seemed set for a January 1973 move to Peru, and I settled down to begin a PhD study under Jack’s supervision, working on the group of triploid potatoes known as Solanum x chaucha.

Mike discussing potato taxonomy with renowned Peruvian potato expert, Prof. Carlos Ochoa

Steph checking potatoes in the CIP germplasm collection in one of the screenhouses at La Molina

Although I went on to the CIP payroll on 1 January 1973, I didn’t fly out to Peru until the 4th (a Thursday). After spending Christmas with my parents in Leek, then a couple of days in London with my girlfriend Stephanie (who joined me in Peru in July 1973, where we were married in October, and she joined CIP’s staff as well) I spent a couple of nights in Birmingham with Jack and his wife Barbara before we set out on the long journey to Lima.

In those days, the ‘direct’ route to Peru from the UK was with BOAC from London-Heathrow, with three intermediate stops: in St John’s, Antigua in the Caribbean; in Caracas, Venezuela; and finally in Bogotá, Colombia. We finally arrived in Lima late at night, were met at Jorge Chavez airport by plant pathologist Ed French, and whisked off to our respective lodgings: me to the Pension Beech on Los Libertadores in the San Isidro district of Lima, and Jack to stay with the Sawyers. Thus began my association with CIP – for the next eight and a half years (I moved to Costa Rica in April 1976), and with the CGIAR until my retirement in 2010.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Birmingham genetic resources MSc course in 1989. R to L: Trevor Williams, Jim Callow (Mason Professor of Botany), Jack Hawkes, Brian Ford-Lloyd, Mike Jackson, not sure

After CIP I returned to the UK to teach at the University of Birmingham. By then, many of the overseas MSc students were being supported by another of the CGIAR institutes, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, IBPGR (later to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI, then Bioversity International) based in Rome. A former Birmingham faculty member, Dr Trevor Williams (who had supervised my master’s thesis) was the first Director General of IBPGR. I maintained my links with CIP, and for a number of years had a joint research project with it and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge on true potato seed. I also took part in a very detailed project review for CIP in about 1988.

In 1991 I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which was founded in 1960, and is the oldest of the 15 centers that are part of the CGIAR Consortium. I was head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center for 10 years, followed by almost nine as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

The CGIAR gave me a great career. I was able to work for excellent scientific research organizations that had noble goals to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, ensure better nutrition and health, and manage resources sustainably. As a small cog in a big wheel it’s hard to fathom what contribution you might be making. But I often thought that if people were going to bed less hungry each night, then we were making a difference. This does not diminish the scale of the continuing problems of poverty and food security problems in the developing world, which are all-too-often exacerbated by civil strife and conflict in some of the most vulnerable societies. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have played my part, however small. It was my work with the CGIAR that led to my appointment as an OBE by HM The Queen in 2012, for services to international food science.