Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 3. Guatemala

In April 1976, my wife and I moved to Turrialba, Costa Rica where I set up an office for the International Potato Center at CATIE – Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza. My principal remit was to develop a research program on adaptation of potatoes to warm and humid environments – the so-called tropical potato, as well as supporting the regional activities that were led at that time by my colleague Oscar Hidalgo from the regional office in Toluca, Mexico.

Very soon the focus of my work became the bacterial wilt pathogen (Ralstonia solanacearum), and this led to the identification of some interesting sources of resistance to the disease and development of agronomic practices to reduce the severity of attack in the field. And when Oscar moved (in late 1977) to North Carolina to begin his studies for a PhD in plant pathology, I became CIP’s regional leader for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and we transferred the regional office to Turrialba. And in early 1978 we began to develop the concept of what became PRECODEPA, a cooperative regional potato program funded in large part by the Swiss government. Through PRECODEPA I visited Guatemala many times. The potato scientists there took responsibility for postharvest storage technologies.

In the south of the country the mountains stretch from the frontier with Mexico in the west to El Salvador and Honduras in the west. And it’s in the mountains to the west of Guatemala City, in the region of Quetzaltenango that most potatoes are grown. Much of the country, stretching way to the north is low-lying tropical rainforest – the home of the Mayans, and where we visited Tikal in 1977.

There are many volcanoes in Guatemala, some active. To the west of Guatemala City lies the old city of Antigua, and further west still the Lago de Atitlán, with a ring of villages on its shores, each named after one of the Twelve Apostles. The highly picturesque town of Sololá lies close by to the north.

27-1977-07 Solola 09Unlike Costa Rica, which has a very small indigenous community, Guatemala is ethnically and culturally very rich, and reminded us of our years in Peru. The beautiful weavings and typical costumes can be seen everywhere, and on an every day basis.

Guatemalan agriculture is quite interesting based as it is on multicropping or milpa systems of maize, beans and squashes. In fact, multi- or intercropping is extremely common in Guatemala, and I’ve even seen potatoes intercropped with maize and other crops there – something that is quite uncommon in other countries.

06-1977-07 Comalapa 0102-1977-07 Lago de Atitlan 02

During one of our visits we met with representatives of an NGO (with several US citizens involved) in a small community, Comalapa, about 67 km west of Guatemala City and north of the provincial capital of Chimaltenango. I must have been very naive. It’s only quite recently that I became aware of the civil war that was ongoing in Guatemala at that time, and I’ve often asked myself whether we were lucky not to have come across either right-wing or left-wing groups that made people ‘disappear’.

Here are some photos that I took around Lago de Atitlán and Sololá.

Rice for the world . . .

Conferences are an important part of any scientist’s annual plans. You could attend a conference almost on any subject, and held in almost any part of the world. Many scientific societies hold annual meetings, and sometimes specialist meetings in between. When I was an active potato scientist in the 1970s I did manage to attend at least one Annual Meeting of the Potato Association of America. The 63rd Annual Conference was held in Vancouver, Canada on the campus of the University of British Columbia, 22-27 July 1979, and I was working for the International Potato Center in Central America at the time. I was able to combine this work trip with some vacation, and my wife Steph and 15 month old daughter Hannah came along. We had two or three days in San Francisco on the way north (my only visit to that wonderful city, apart from an overnight airport stop), several days in Vancouver (where the sun shone brightly all the time we were there), followed by a road trip through the Canadian Rockies to Edmonton, Alberta to spend a few days with my elder brother Ed and his wife Linda. From there we went on to Madison, Wisconsin to visit with Profs. Luis Sequeira and Arthur Kelman at the university, to discuss my work on bacterial wilt of potatoes. And then we flew home to Costa Rica via Chicago and Miami.

When I was with IRRI I managed to attend four or five annual meetings of the Tri-Societies (ASA-CSSA-SSSA): the Agronomy Society of America, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America, a huge shindig of several thousand attendees. I was a member of Division C-8 of the CSSA on genetic resources and was invited a few times to present my rice research.

IRC 2014 logo finalFor rice, however, there is only one meeting of significance, and that’s the International Rice Congress, with the 4th Congress (IRC2014) scheduled to take place in Bangkok, Thailand from 27-31 October 2014. And I have been taken on as a consultant by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to lead the development of the congress science program. Before I retired from IRRI in 2010 I had a similar role for the 3rd Congress (IRC2010) that was held in Hanoi, Vietnam in early November 2010. Planning had begun in early 2009, and after retiring I completed my role from my home in the UK.

I’m excited to be involved in IRC2014, not only because the congress is a prestigious meeting for rice science, bringing together rice scientists from all over the world (there were more than 2000 attendees in 2010), but it will help keep me up to date with latest advances in the rice world.

Planning is at an early stage, and a possible theme will be Rice for the World . . . watch this space; I’ll link to the official congress website when it’s up. I’ll be going out to Thailand at the end of April for a few days to meet with colleagues at Kenes Asia, the company that will handle all the logistics for IRC2014. Then it’s on to IRRI in Los Baños in the Philippines for about 10 days. Hopefully at the end of that trip we’ll have a science support committee in place, ad the broad structure of the science sessions mapped out. Of course there’s an enormous amount of work to arrive at a final scientific program, not least determining the detailed structure of the program – along scientific themes or disciplines, geographical regions, or even rice ecosystems. Lots of points to discuss and decisions to make.

bitecThe congress will be held at BITEC – the Bangkok International Trade & Exhibition Centre. Hopefully I’ll have chance to visit the venue during my two days in Bangkok. That’s very important to get a much better idea of just what is possible in terms of parallel sessions, space for poster sessions, and the all important plenary or plenaries. I haven’t been to Bangkok for many years and although traffic congestion is still bad, getting around has improved considerably, I’m led to believe, following the opening of the Skytrain.

Once the congress website is up and running, and there’s more to report about the science program at IRC2014, I’ll be making regular updates. Do come back.

“I’m all for censorship. If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out.” Kenneth Horne

Round Mr HorneI’ve just finished a very readable biography of the late Kenneth Horne, one of the comedy greats of the 20th century, written by Barry Johnston (son of the late cricket commentator Brian Johnston). I’m sure, however, for many readers of this blog outside the UK or who did not grow up in the 50s and 60s, the name of Kenneth Horne will mean little if nothing at all. But he was the lynch-pin, so-to-speak, of some of the most successful comedy series on BBC radio in the 1940s, 50s and 60s until his untimely death from a massive heart attack at the age of 61 in 1969.

From: Horne was the youngest of seven children of inspirational preacher Sylvester Horne (later a Liberal MP) who died when Kenneth was seven. In the 1920s he enrolled for an economics degree at the London School of Economics, but not prospering there, one of his uncles – a Pilkington of the glass making company – managed to secure him a place at Cambridge University (also to study economics). But Kenneth was more interested in sport (it seems he excelled at a whole range of sports), and never finished his degree. He then went into business, joining the Triplex Safety Glass company based in Birmingham. Over the years he rose through the ranks, becoming marketing director.

I discovered a number of things about Kenneth Horne that I had never been aware of.

All the while he was a radio (and then TV) personality, he combined this career with one in the glass business (and later toys).

He appeared on a whole raft of radio and TV shows (Twenty Questions, Top of the Form, and many others), many of which I’m sure I used to listen to or watch without ever making the connection with the comedian who fronted two of the most successful shows to be broadcast on the radio: Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.

During the Second World War he saw ‘active’ service in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the Air Ministry in London rising to the rank of Wing Commander. But he also combined his war duties with a serious broadcasting schedule, joining forces with comedian Richard ‘Dickie’ Murdoch in the wartime comedy hit, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, set in a fictional RAF station, which continued right into the 1950s.

He was married three times, first to a daughter of the Duke of Newcastle, and during his second marriage he lived in the village of Burcot, about 2 miles from where I live in north Worcestershire.

But Kenneth Horne will be best remembered for the two iconic comedies Beyond Our Ken (which ran over seven series between July 1958 and February 1964, with 123 episodes) followed by Round the Horne (broadcast over four series from March 1965 to June 1968, and 67 episodes). Both had strong writing teams, with Eric Merriman, Barry Took, Marty Feldman and others involved. Just think how many episodes were broadcast in a single series. Today we’re luck if we hear or see any more than half a dozen (or fewer) in a series.

And there was a strong supporting cast: Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Douglas Smith, Bill Pertwee, Maurice Denham, Ron Moody, Betty Marsden and Pat Lancaster among others. The format of each show, with its introduction, sketches and musical interludes hardly changed over the various series. But the writers (and performers) did push the boundaries of comedy and were increasingly accused of peddling filth on the radio, and scripts becoming more and more ‘smutty’. However, if you read the scripts there was nothing to complain about (then BBC Director General Hugh Greene was asked to intervene and ban the shows but, admitting to enjoying a little bit of ‘dirty comedy’, did nothing to curtail the broadcasts) – it was all in the delivery, and how the cast milked the scripts for every last laugh and innuendo. They were wonderful. Broadcast on a Sunday afternoon or evening, Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne attracted listening audiences in the millions – making them possibly the most successful radio comedy shows of all time.

With the various characters on the show having strange (and often suggestive) names, such as folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo and J. Peasemold Gruntfuttock (played by Kenneth Williams), Dame Celia Molestrangler (played by Betty Marsden) and ‘ageing juvenile’ Binkie Huckaback (played by Hugh Paddick, as well as the outrageously camp Julian and Sandy (played by Williams and Paddick) – who spoke in polari, a slang often used by gays in the theatrical profession (when homosexuality was illegal in the UK), each show was a riot of mirth and laughter. It’s clear that the cast got on famously together. What shone through in Johnston’s biography was Kenneth Horne’s humanity – he was an extremely kind and generous person. And listening to the shows 50 years after they were first broadcast is the vitality, the freshness, and the earthiness of the humor.

I’m no prude when it comes to bad language in the media, and I’m not averse to using the odd word myself for emphasis from time-to-time. What I don’t find funny, however, is gratuitous ‘effing and blinding’ that seems to be the norm today of many stand-up (so-called) comedians (such as the awful Frankie Boyle), unless of course, your name’s Billy Connolly and his bad language is just part of his Glaswegian vernacular. Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne were in a different league. There was never a hint of bad  or explicit language.

It’s impossible to describe these shows in detail. Here, however, is a clip that you just might enjoy. I did, and whenever I hear them on BBC Radio 4 Extra, they never fail to bring a very broad grin to my face. Happy childhood memories!



From car park to cathedral . . . missing no longer!

King Richard III

King Richard III

It’s been a remarkable six month or so journey. Who would have believed that when archaeologists from the University of Leicester began digging up a municipal car park in the the city in August 2012 – on the supposedly wild goose chase to find the remains of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III – that they would have been so incredibly successful. And in such a short time.

I’ve been fascinated by the unfolding story of the dig, and the extraordinary ‘appliance of science’ to arrive at irrefutable conclusions. From all appearances, the project has demonstrated remarkable teamwork among staff at the university (primarily the Departments of Archaeology & Ancient History and Genetics) and the King Richard III Society. And the team reached out to other experts to fill in the gaps, so to speak.

Last week there was a fascinating TV program that filled in some of the details about how the discovery of the skeleton came about, and how the people involved went about to confirm its identity.

Of course, one has to pay credit to Philippa Langley of the King Richard III Society who seems to have been the driving force behind the whole project – and believed! But the project also seems to be a good example of ‘the perfect storm’ – so many things came together at the same time.

It was long believed that King Richard had been buried in Leicester, probably at the Greyfriars Friary that disappeared after the Reformation in the sixteenth century. But where to begin to look in a city that had been paved over for centuries.

Piece of luck, number 1. It seems there is still a good coincidence between today’s streets and those of medieval times. Overlaying maps, the team was able to focus in on a part of the city that is still known as Greyfriars, in fact to a municipal car park. And the archaeology team opened three trenches. Almost immediately they uncovered human remains. But were they the remains of King Richard III? That’s where the appliance of science came to the fore. However, as one of the archaeology team pointed out, opening a trench just 50 cm to one side or the other and they would have missed the skeleton altogether.

So what was the evidence that this really was King Richard III?

  • The skeleton appeared to have been buried in haste, possibly with wrists bound together, and showing considerable trauma such as fatal blows to the skull.
  • The spine showed severe twisting or scoliosis which Richard was known to suffer from, although there was no evidence of a withered left arm (another piece of Tudor propaganda?).
  • On closer analysis, however, there were features of the skeleton which suggested that it might be female (subsequently disproved), such as shape of the pelvis and slender forearms. Apparently Richard was reported, even in his own lifetime, to be somewhat ‘slender’.
  • Careful CT scans were made of the skeleton before cleaning, and 3D images of the skull were used by Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at the University of Dundee to attempt a facial reconstruction (that was revealed after the skeleton’s identity was confirmed as that of Richard III).
  • Carbon dating evidence was rather interesting. From unadjusted data it appeared that the person had died some decades before Richard did at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. However, it seems that this person had a diet rich in fish and seafood (a sign of affluence) and this made the skeleton appear older than it was. An adjusted date covered the 1485 period.
  • Then there’s the genealogical data. Some years earlier, direct descendants of Richard III’s elder sister, Anne of York, had been traced (over 18 generations). In fact several descendants have been traced, but some wish to remain anonymous. One was a Canadian cabinet maker living in London, who is the great, great, great . . . nephew of Richard III. And this leads on to the most exciting aspect – the DNA analysis.

  • Genetic fingerprinting was ‘invented’ at the University of Leicester by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys FRS in the 1980s. And it turns out that there are several lines of research in the Department of Genetics at Leicester studying lines of descent and their correlation with surnames. Using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited only through the female side, geneticist Dr Turi King was able to show unequivocally that there was a perfect match between the mtDNA of the skeleton and our Canadian cabinet maker, thus proving that the skeleton was indeed that of King Richard III. Perfect matches were also made with another descendant of Anne of York, and the skeleton was confirmed as ‘male’ through analysis of Y chromosome DNA.

So many different strands of interest and expertise came together in this exciting project, and all at the right time. The team has to be congratulated for all their efforts – it really has been a most exciting story to follow. Now let’s see where they do finally decide to re-bury the king: Leicester or York (which is lobbying hard). I think Leicester will win out.

Update (18 March 2015)
Well, Leicester has ‘won’ if that’s the correct description, and the remains of Richard III will be interred next week – with all appropriate honour – in Leicester Cathedral. And rightly so. The hoo-ha of where he should be buried has certainly demeaned this incredible project.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, as I was surfing through the web pages of The Guardian earlier this morning, I came across a link where you can find much more information about the whole Richard III project since I first wrote this particular blog post just two years ago.


Lucy in the sky . . .

Today, the weather couldn’t be more different than yesterday when, with a clear blue sky and not a cloud, we headed out on our first National Trust visit of 2013. We’d just been waiting for the weather to improve.  And yesterday, Spring had truly sprung. Out of the wind it was really warm; it actually reached 13.1°C at Wellesbourne (one of the warmest places in the West Midlands yesterday), just a mile down the road from Charlecote Park, a Tudor mansion built beside the River Avon in Warwickshire, about half way between Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick.

The Tudor gatehouse at the end of the main drive, in front of the house

Since we joined the National Trust a couple of years ago, we visited nearly all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – the properties reasonably close to our home. Hopefully as the weather improves over the coming months we’ll find it easier to travel further afield. Charlecote Park lies at the heart of a rather small estate, only about 75 ha, alongside the River Avon, and is the home (since the mid 13th century) of the Lucy family and descendants. The current house was built by Sir Thomas Lucy in the mid-16th century, but has been extensively modified in the intervening centuries, most significantly during Victorian times. The direct Lucy line died out in the mid-19th century, and Charlecote Park was inherited by the family that still lives in one of the wings, the Fairfax-Lucy’s. The tomb of Sir Thomas Lucy survives in the adjacent church, St Leonard’s, which was founded in Norman times but the building today is mainly Victorian. It has some beautiful stained glass windows, and the sculpted marble or alabaster tombs of Sir Thomas and others taken from the old church.

Stained glass window above the altar in St Leonard's, Charlecote

Stained glass window above the altar in St Leonard’s, Charlecote

Tomb of Sir Thomas Lucy and his wife

In the house there is access to the Great Hall inside the main entrance, the billiards and drawing rooms downstairs, and several bedrooms upstairs, as well as the main staircase. In the grounds are outbuildings housing a collection of Victorian carriages, and the laundry and brewery. In one wing is an immense Victorian kitchen.

In the brew house – there are plans to begin brewing at Charlecote once again

The formal grounds are quite limited – mainly a parterre beside the River Avon, from which there are views across the meadows to the village of Hampton Lucy (about 1 mile away) and what looks like its magnificent parish church of St Peter ad Vincula which, surprisingly, I’ve discovered was built in 1822 and added to 30 years later. In the park there are flocks of rare breed Jacob sheep and fallow deer, the later introduced in Tudor times in the 16th century.

Church of St Peter ad Vincula in Hampton Lucy, from Charlecote Park

Church of St Peter ad Vincula in Hampton Lucy, from Charlecote Park

The parterre beside the River Avon

Legend has it that the young William Shakespeare was caught poaching rabbits in the grounds of Charlecote Park in about 1583 (there’s a second edition folio of Shakespeare’s complete works on display in the Great Hall). The playwright had his ‘revenge’, it is said, on Sir Thomas Lucy by lampooning him as Justice Shallow in two of his plays: Henry IV (Part II) and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Great Hall – interestingly, the ceiling is not wood but plaster molded and painted to look like timber

In some ways, this visit to Charlecote Park was a disappointment, despite the beautiful weather. The formal gardens were small – I had expected something more extensive. And access to parts of the house was rather limited, partly due to the fact that some sections of the house were being rewired. Nevertheless there were some beautiful objects on display. There was a large nursery selling plants for the garden – hellebores seemed to be the specialty.

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