A Balanced Diet: the year in review

I started this blog just under four years ago. Since then, I guess I must have written at least 300,000 words in 280 posts, probably many more. And 2015 has once again been a busy blogging year (76 posts including this one), with stories about our tour of Scotland, a September visit to the USA (including a trip to Chicago), and our National Trust and English Heritage visits. The obituary I wrote for an old friend, Trevor Williams, caught the attention of many of his past students all around the world; I also wrote about other former colleagues who passed away.

I’m always surprised at what catches everyone’s attention, and where my readers come from (160 countries during this year). And some stories written in previous years continue to run, on and on, such as those about genetic resources, and my trip to Buckingham Palace on Leap Year Day in 2012 to be invested as an Officer (OBE) of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or cricket.

One of my favorite posts has to be that about our visit to the Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul, Minnesota in September, to watch a live broadcast of the long-running radio variety show broadcast each Saturday on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), A Prairie Home Companion, hosted by Garrison Keillor.

So, it’s quite interesting to read the 2015 annual report for this blog prepared by the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys.

Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 33,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 12 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

You can read the full report here.

2015: a great year for National Trust and English Heritage visits

Steph and I have been members of the National Trust for five years now. We even qualify for the Seniors discount from January! And we’ve been members of English Heritage for just a year.

But we will be renewing our membership of both organizations in 2016. Why? Because they both offer excellent value for money, and certainly give purpose to our trips out, whatever the weather. Be it a visit to a stately home, a ruined castle, a country park, or a beautiful garden, there are so many properties to visit and experience so many aspects of our cultural heritage.

Looking back on our 2015 visits we have certainly had our money’s worth, and annual membership has more than paid for all the entrance fees we would have had to pay in any case. And much more!

So here is a pictorial summary of our great visits this past year, beginning in early April and ending just last week when we visited Charlecote Park to see the Christmas decorations. And there are links to individual posts about each visit.


Lyveden New Bield (9 April)

20150409 092 Lyveden

Brodie Castle (National Trust for Scotland – 29 May)

Brodie Castle

Culloden Battlefield (National Trust for Scotland – 29 May)

Scotland 082

Inverewe Garden (National Trust for Scotland – 1 June)

Scotland 312

Arduaine Garden (National Trust for Scotland – 7 June)

Scotland 877

Rufford Old Hall (8 June)

The main entrance in the seventeenth century wing.

Tredegar House (18 June)

Tredegar House, near Newport in South Wales

Chirk Castle (1 July)

20150701 147 Chirk Castle

Hawford Dovecote (9 July)

20150709 010 Hawford dovecote

Wichenden Dovecote (9 July)

20150709 022 Wichenford dovecote

Hardwick Hall (12 August)

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Newark Park (28 August)

20150828 031 Newark Park

Croome Park (12 October)

20110328046 Croome Court

Charlecote Park (16 December)

The entrance hall.


Rushton Triangular Lodge (9 April)

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire

Stokesay Castle (14 April)

Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

Wroxeter Roman City (14 April)

20150414 130 Wroxeter Roman city

Kenilworth Castle (21 April)


Goodrich Castle (21 May)

Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire

St Mary’s Church, Kempley (21 May)

20150521 135 St Marys Kempley

Witley Court (9 July)

20150709 091 Witley Court

Hardwick Old Hall (12 August)

Looking down six floors in the Old Hall. And the magnificent plasterwork on the walls.

Wenlock Priory (18 August)

20150818 043 Wenlock Priory

Ironbridge (18 August)

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ironbridge

It’s publish or perish, Jim – but not as we know it

perishOr to put it another way: The scientist’s dilemma . . . Where to publish?

Let me explain.

It’s autumn 1982. And just over a year since I joined the faculty of The University of Birmingham. Our department had a new Mason Professor of Botany, someone with a very different academic background and interests from myself.

At one departmental coffee break several of us were sitting around discussing various issues when the topic of academic publishing came up.

“In which journals do you publish, Mike?” the new head of department asked me. 1355408371_883_00_800I told him that I’d published several papers in the journal Euphytica, an international journal covering the theoretical and applied aspects of plant breeding. It’s now part of the Springer stable, but I’m not sure who was the publisher then.

His next question surprised me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was gob-smacked. “Is that a refereed journal?” he asked, and went on to explain that he’d never even heard of Euphytica. In my field, Euphytica was considered then as an excellent choice for papers on genetic resources. In a sense he was valuing my academic output based on his ‘blinkered’ view of our shared discipline, botany, which is after all a broad church.

10722Springer now has its own in-house genetic resources journal, Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution (I’m a member of the editorial board), but there are others such as Plant Genetic Resources – Characterization and Utilization (published by Cambridge University Press). Nowadays there are more journals to choose from dealing with disciplines like seed physiology, molecular systematics and ecology, among others, in which papers on genetic resources can find a home.

But in the 1970s and 80s and beyond, I’d always thought about the visibility of my research to others working in the same or allied fields. My research would be of little or no interest to researchers beyond genetic resources or plant breeding for example. So choice of journal in which to publish was predicated very much on this basis. Today, with online searches, the world’s voluminous scientific publishing is accessible at the click of a mouse, it’s perhaps less important exactly where you publish.

Back in the day we had to seek out a hard copy of a journal that interested us, or use something like Current Contents (I’m surprised that’s still going, even in hard copy) to check, on a regular basis, what was being published in various journals. And then contact the author for a reprint (before the days of email).

I can remember way back in the mid-1980s when I had to write a review of true potato seed, when you had to pay for a special literature search through the university library. Now everyone can do it themselves—from their own desk. Nowadays you just search for a journal online, or tap in a few key words, and Hey Presto! there’s a list of relevant papers, complete journal contents lists, abstracts, and even full papers if your institute has a subscription to the journal or the article itself is Open Access.

So the dynamics of scientific publishing have changed from the days when I first began. In some respects then scientific publishing has never been easier but then again never more challenging. Not only are scientists publishing more but they are expected to publish more. Sink or swim!

About a year ago, I was ‘invited’ to join ResearchGatea social networking site for scientists and researchers to share papers, ask and answer questions, and find collaborators. Since then I receive almost daily (if not more frequent) stats about my science publications and who is citing them. It’s obviously quite gratifying to know that many of the papers I published over the decades are still having scientific traction, so-to-speak. And ResearchGate gives me a score indicating how much my papers are being cited (currently 32.10—is this good? I have no idea). There’s obviously no metric that determines the quality of these papers, nor whether they are being cited for good or bad.

In the 1980s there was some discussion of the value of citation indices. I remember reading an interesting article in an internal University of Birmingham newsletter, Teaching News I think it was called, that was distributed to all staff. In this article the author had warned against the indiscriminate use of citation indices, pointing out that an excellent piece of scholarship on depopulation in rural Wales would receive a much lower citation than say a lower quality paper on the rise of fascism, simply because the former represented a much narrower field of academic pursuit.

Today there are so many more metrics, journal impact factors and the like that are taken into account to assess the quality of science. And for many young researchers these metrics play an important role—for good or bad—for the progression of their careers. Frankly, I don’t understand all of these, and I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about them when I was a young researcher.


Prof. David Colquhoun, FRS

And there are many pitfalls. I came across this interesting article on the blog of Professor David Colquhoun, FRS (formerly professor of pharmacology at University College London) about the use (and misuse) of metrics to assess research performance. There was one very interesting comment that I think sums up many of the concerns about the indiscriminate use of publication metrics:

. . . in six of the ten years leading up to the 1991 Nobel prize, Bert Sakmann failed to meet the metrics-based publication target set by Imperial College London, and these failures included the years in which the original single channel paper was published and also the year, 1985, when he published a paper that was subsequently named as a classic in the field. In two of these ten years he had no publications whatsoever.

Application of metrics in the way that it’s been done at Imperial and also at Queen Mary College London, would result in firing of the most original minds.

We seem obsessed by metrics. And whenever there is a request for publication metrics for whatever purpose, there are always perverse incentives and opportunities to game the system, as I discovered to IRRI’s cost during the CGIAR annual performance exercise in the late ‘Noughties’. And when the submitted data are scrutinized by someone who really does not understand the nature of scientific publishing, then you’re on a slippery slope to accepting scientific mediocrity.

The passion and intemperance of ignorance . . .

This past weekend, I was called a liar on Facebook. Not once. But three times.

Well, I’ve been called many things over my career but never a liar when it comes to my science. Back in the day that would have been sufficient cause for challenging the perpetrator to a duel. Instead, I’ll just blog about this incident.

The background I guess to this whole episode is a flurry of Facebook posts after ‘the Supreme Court of the Philippines recently ordered a permanent ban on field trials of genetically engineered (GE) eggplant and a temporary halt on approving applications for the “contained use, import, commercialisation and propagation” of GE crops, including the import of GE products. The court ruled in favour of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, as well as several Filipino activists, academics and politicians.’ This ban also affects the work of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) with regard to its research on Golden Rice.

The decision of the court invalidates the Department of Agriculture’s Administrative Order No. 08-2002 (DAO8).  The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Science and Technology may not issue any GE approvals until a new Administrative Order is approved. This seems an odd decision, especially since biotech maize (Bt/Ht maize) has been grown commercially in the Philippines since 2003.

While Greenpeace and other opponents of GM technology are undoubtedly elated by this turn of events, the Supreme Court’s decision has been widely condemned among the scientific community, none perhaps more powerfully than Filipino geneticist Michael Purugganan (the Dorothy Schiff Professor of Genomics, Professor of Biology, and Dean for Science at New York University) reported on the www.rappler.com website.

tolentino-contactThere then followed a number of posts on Facebook. The latest spat at the weekend began after I had read something posted by Dr Bruce Tolentino (IRRI’s Deputy Director General – Communication and Partnerships) about the value of GMOs. He was citing a recent article by computational biologist Grant Jacobs on the New Zealand Sciblogs, titled GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”.

This is what Jacobs wrote and which caused the subsequent furore on Facebook:
Some say that genetically modified plants are a concern because they’re genetically modified organisms (GMOs), that “natural” plants are safer.

Yet what most people call “natural” foods are rare mutants that have been selected or have been artificially bred (or often both). They have much more dramatic genetic changes than GMOs. Changes that scientists are still learning about.

Foods we eat today bear little resemblance to the wild species they were originally derived from. Even plants that we might not at first consider to be cultivated have been selected for many hundreds or, more usually, thousands of years.

LOGOGREENPEACECOLORThree hours after Bruce had posted the link to Jacobs’ blog piece, this comment was posted by someone affiliated to Greenpeace Sweden, Mr Stefan Bruhn:
‘Who is paying you for your lies Bruce Tolentino? Monsanto? Of course natural plants are safer since they have been consumed for hundreds or, more usually, thousands of years. And no, GMOs are not unsafe because they are GMOs, they are unsafe because they haven’t been properly tested. Further, most types of GMOs are crafted to be immune to toxics, which increases the use of toxics. And Monsanto owns the patent to the majority of GMOs, and Monsanto is evil. Stop lying your ass off for money you fraudster.’

stefan-bruhn-160x185Well, I was quite shocked to see such a response so decided to discover who had made such a wild—and unfounded—accusation. Mr Bruhn (an erstwhile Facebook ‘friend’ of Bruce’s) is a political science graduate from Lund University who is listed on the Greenpeace site as having a responsibility for Donor Relations and Marketing (although ‘off duty’ right now, whatever that means). He has has worked at Greenpeace for almost 13 years.

I couldn’t resist adding a comment myself, and suggested that Mr Bruhn’s comment had been uncouth. I also made a link to something I had posted on my blog posts earlier in the year about GMOs after a Golden Rice field trial in the Philippines had been trashed by activists. Unfortunately I spelled his first name ‘Stephan’ rather than ‘Stefan’, and that appeared to have incensed him in subsequent comments:
‘Pity that you don’t even have the decency to spell my name right. Pity that you are trying to make people believe that GMOs are natural. Since when did fish naturally mate with tomatoes and strawberries? You know what is truly uncouth? Lying to people just to make more money.’

He then directed me to this blog by Green Diva Meg where there are some truly wacky ideas about GMOs and technology being promoted as ‘truth’ without incontrovertible scientific evidence. He followed up with:
‘You people are LIARS, you lie so good that you even believe it yourself.’

Some of the things mentioned in that Green Diva Meg blog reminded me of the Penn and Teller Bullshit video I had posted elsewhere (there’s some strong language), and in which GM myths promoted by the likes of Greenpeace are debunked.

Mr Bruhn again raised the ‘Monsanto bugaboo’. I agree that Monsanto did not play a particularly responsible role during the 1980s in the UK when the deployment of GMOs was first being explored; Monsanto’s response (or lack of response) set back biotechnology in the UK from which it has yet to fully recover. But to lay the blame at Monsanto’s door for everything that activists like Greenpeace believe is wrong about GM technology is not only unwarranted but egregious. They obviously have not fully understood how the technology for the development of Golden Rice, for example, has been donated by industry and placed in the public domain for the benefit of humanity. Nor the involvement of philanthropic foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But I’m sure there’s nothing I can write or say that would convince them otherwise. Pity.

Anyway, getting back to our Facebook spat, I apologized for spelling Mr Bruhn’s name wrong, and then attempted to calm things down with a little humor (I suggested that perhaps he’d got out of bed the wrong side, and that Santa might leave him some tasty GM treats—I’m afraid I couldn’t resist winding him up), he finally added this:
Pity that you keep on avoiding the topic and instead choose to focus on my moods. That is an old school classic for people without arguments. I know I am right and you know you are wrong. GMOs are not natural, and anyone who says so is either a paid liar or plain stupid. Regarding your GM treats, just mark them “GMO” so that I can make an informed choice and throw them away. And to make my Xmas more merry, please don’t waste my time by writing back, you have already proved yourself to be a liar.

And there our exchange of comments ended, for the time being, although I guess this blog post might stir things up again. It’s really a pity that a rational discussion about GMOs and GM foods is seemingly impossible. Opposition to GM technology seems to be an article of faith. I think that I—as a convinced atheist—am more likely to believe in God than Mr Bruhn would accept GM approaches to solving food insecurity.

Greenpeace has, in many respects played an important role in highlighting and tackling important environmental issues, and I can sympathize with some of these. No worries! But not with regard to their opposition to GM technology. I also wish they would also base their campaigns on solid scientific evidence rather than beliefs. I also decry the tactics and stunts they pull from time-to-time, such as the desecration of the Nazca lines on the coast of Peru (for which they apparently apologized but didn’t seem particularly contrite).

And there it remains.


A balmy day (and Victorian Christmas) at Charlecote Park

6 March 2013. A beautiful Spring day, and our first National Trust visit of the year. Temperature: about 13C. Destination: Charlecote Park, Warwickshire.

Fast forward to 16 December 2015, and we visited Charlecote for a second time, to experience a Victorian Christmas, circa 1842.

Temperature: A balmy 14C! Although in contrast to our first visit, it was generally overcast with occasional—but very welcome—breaks in the cloud for the sun to peek through. This is what the BBC had to report about the weather yesterday.

And what better evidence that it was a balmy day—in fact, a balmy month to date. The weather has been so mild that plants such as snowdrop that we’d expect to see in flower by the end of January were already blooming yesterday at Charlecote.

20151216 026 Charlecote Park

Early snowdrops!

Not only snowdrops, but also the primulas and daisies that had been planted in the parterre on the west side of the house, alongside the River Avon, were coming into bloom. I guess these had been planted out to provide some Spring colour for next March or so.

20151216 029 Charlecote Park

Daisy beds in the Parterre.

20151216 030 Charlecote Park

Now these daisies should be flowering next Spring.

It’s about a 300 m walk from the car park to the Gatehouse (3 on the map below) and the house itself, down a long drive. Charlecote has several herds of fallow deer, and we were fortunate that a large herd was grazing quite close to the house in the Front Park (16). Several of the bucks had impressive sets of antlers.

charlecote map

20151216 036 Charlecote Park-001

One of the herds of fallow deer at Charlecote Park.

Since the house did not open until noon, we planned a walk in the park, taking in part of the West Park (13), the Cascade (11) where the River Dene meets the Avon, and views of the house from the Paddock (10) that were quite spectacular yesterday as the sun came out and highlighted the lovely red brick against a glowering sky to the north.

Although it was a little boggy underfoot in places, we enjoyed the walk, eventually made it all the way round the lake between the Front Park and Hill Park (18). ‘Capability Brown‘ made his mark here at Charlecote, beginning in 1757.

We decided to tour the house (or the parts that were open to the public yesterday) before having lunch. Everywhere was festively decorated. The table in the Dining Room was laid out for an 1842 Christmas feast.

Then we headed for the Orangery Restaurant for something to eat—the only downside to our visit. The sandwiches we bought were fine, but the service left much to be desired. I think it was a question of ‘too many cooks’ behind the counter, staff tripping over each other, difficult customers, and a failure of planning in terms of what food would be available. I saw a number of customers disappointed because their chosen meal was no longer available. And this was about 1 pm. So it took around 30 minutes to queue up and buy our lunch and there were no more than 10 people ahead of us in the queue. I appreciate that many of the staff at National Trust properties are volunteers. I’m not sure what the situation regarding their restaurants. But clearly the staff were overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, we didn’t let this affect our day out. It was great to be out and about, especially since both of us have been fighting nasty colds and chesty coughs for over a month and haven’t felt like stirring outside at all. And, with the festive decorations, it felt good to be getting into the spirit of the season. At last!




Gardens, apples and pumpkins

For one weekend last September, I almost felt like a ‘latter-day Johnny Appleseed‘. I hadn’t seen so many apples in a long time, nor been apple picking before. Seems it’s quite a family outing sort of thing in Minnesota, towards the end of September, and especially if the weather is fine—maybe an Indian Summer day even.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Steph and I flew to the USA on 10 September to spend almost three weeks with our daughter Hannah, son-in-law Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë in St Paul, Minnesota. And we still can’t believe how lucky we were with the weather this vacation. Almost every day for the entirety of our stay (including a side trip to Chicago), the weather was bright and sunny, hot even with days often in the low 80sF.

The first weekend in St Paul, Hannah and Michael took us to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (part of the University of Minnesota), around 23 miles due east of Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, along I-494 W and MN-5 W. There are miles and miles of roads and trails to explore, but with two small children of 5 and 3 in tow, we limited our visit to a walk through the various glades and gardens close to the arboretum’s Oswald Visitor Center (map).

Hannah and Michael had taken Callum and Zoë to the arboretum on 4 July, when there was an impressive display of Lego sculptures around the gardens.

On the Sunday of our second weekend in St Paul, we met up with Hannah and Michael’s lovely friends, Katie and Chris and their daughters Nora and Annie, to go apple picking at a farm in the valley of the St Croix River (that joins the mighty Mississippi just five miles south), about 30 miles southeast from their home in the Highland district of St Paul. Thanks to Katie for several of the photos below.

The Whistling Well Farm offers several apple varieties for picking, as well as pumpkins and pot chrysanthemums for sale, and chickens to feed.

It’s a great place for the children to explore, and to get thoroughly wet. There was a heavy dew!

Having ‘exhausted’ possibilities at Whistling Well Farms, we journeyed just a couple of miles west to Afton Apple Orchard, to take a trailer ride around the orchards and pumpkin fields.

20150930 0418

What a lovely way to enjoy the company of family, especially grandchildren.


L to R: Hannah, Zoë, Michael, Callum, Steph and me.




Transitions . . .

The community of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Agriculture (CGIAR) has mourned the loss of three giants of agricultural research for development, two of whom I have blogged about earlier in the year. For a number of years they were contemporaries, leading three of the research centers that are supported through the CGIAR.


Richard Sawyer

In March, Dr Richard Sawyer, first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru passed away at the age of 93. Richard was my first boss in the CGIAR when I joined CIP in January 1973. He remained Director General until 1991. Not one to suffer fools gladly, Richard set CIP on a course that seemed – to some at least – at odds with the way they thought international agricultural research centers should operate. He was eventually proved correct, and CIP expanded its mandate to include sweet potatoes and other Andean crops. His legacy in potato research lives on.

Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams

In April, Professor Trevor Williams, the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (that became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, and now Bioversity International) passed away after a long respiratory illness, aged 76. Trevor had supervised my MSc thesis when I first joined the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham in September 1970. We did some interesting work together on lentils. Here is my blog post. I also published an obituary in the scientific journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution.

Nyle Brady

Nyle Brady

Now we have just heard that Dr Nyle C Brady, third Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines, passed away at the end of November. He was 95. I never worked for Brady, although I met him on several occasions during the 1990s and early 2000s. However, for a decade I worked at IRRI in the building that was named after him when he retired from IRRI in 1981. There is a long-standing tradition of such naming honours at IRRI for former Directors General (and two other dignitaries who were instrumental in setting up IRRI in 1959/60).

This is what IRRI just published recently on its website (where you will find other links and videos):

Dr. Nyle C. Brady, the third director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and long-time professor and leader in soil science at Cornell University in the United States, passed away on 24 November in Colorado at age 95.

After 26 years at Cornell, Brady became IRRI’s director general in 1973. During 8 years at the helm, he pioneered new cooperative relationships between the Institute and the national agricultural research systems in Asia.

In October 1976, Dr. Brady led an IRRI group of scientists on a historic 3-week trip to China where they visited most of the institutions conducting rice research, as well as rice-growing communes where they interacted with farmers (a rare circumstance in 1976). Brady had previously provided China with seeds of IRRI-developed varieties, which jump-started the Institute’s formal scientific collaboration that facilitated the development of the country’s rice economy. The October 1976 trip marked the beginning of dramatic changes in China and of a close relationship between China and IRRI that has resulted in major achievements in rice research.

In a 2006 interview, Dr. Brady said, “My IRRI experience ranks very high. I had three careers: one at Cornell as a professor and a teacher, one at IRRI, and then one in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID; as senior assistant administrator for science and technology, 1981-89), the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP), and The World Bank. I won’t say which one was the more critical. I will say that my experience at IRRI, not only for me but for my wife and family, was a highlight because we were involved in something that would help humanity. I felt I was working with a group of individuals, men and women, who wanted to improve the lot of people. They were not there just to do research and write papers; they were there to solve problems.”

“Nyle Brady led IRRI into a tremendous period of growth in the 1970s, through which some of its greatest achievements came to fruition,” said Robert Zeigler, IRRI’s current director general. “Even after he left IRRI to join USAID, and through his retirement, he was always looking out for IRRI’s best interest. He understood the power of what IRRI had to offer some of the world’s least advantaged people and did what he could to help us realize our full potential. IRRI and the world are better places for having had Nyle at the helm for so many productive years.”

Born in Colorado in the U.S., he earned his B.S. in chemistry from Brigham Young University in 1941 and his PhD in soil science from North Carolina State University in 1947. An emeritus professor at Cornell, he was the co-author (with Ray R. Weil) of the classic textbook, The nature and properties of soils, now in its 14th edition. “He was a giant in soil science and agriculture, and left an important legacy in many ways,” said Weil, professor of environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland.

“Brady was one of the giants of our field, and yet known for his personable approach to students and colleagues,” said Pedro Sanchez, director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center and senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, whom Brady mentored.

Season’s Greetings 2015

red banner


It has been an interesting year, one way or another. We enjoyed more travel in the UK than in previous years. However, for the first time since we retired in April 2010 Mike has had no consultancies and associated travel at all during 2015.

20150930 0942

Enjoying our very first s’mores during our Minnesota visit in September.

Early in the year, Hannah and Michael raised the possibility of coming over to the UK during the summer. And on that basis we decided that we wouldn’t go to Minnesota this year but instead take a road trip holiday around Scotland at the end of May, something that we had wanted to do for several years. In the event, Hannah and Michael had to postpone their UK visit. By then however, Steph and I had already worked out an itinerary for Scotland, and booked bed and breakfast accommodation. But then we decided to make our annual visit to the USA as well, and we enjoyed almost three weeks there from early September.

5, 4, 3, and 2
Those are the ages of our grandchildren – Callum, Elvis, Zoë, and Felix.


Callum and Zoë

Elvis&Felix July 2015

Elvis and Felix

It was a big year for Callum who turned five in mid-August, and started kindergarten during the first week of September, just a few days ahead of our arrival in St Paul. After a thorough check about local school opportunities, Hannah and Michael settled on the Nova Classical Academy (NCA), about 15 minutes away by car. Callum won his place in a ballot. It has a ‘traditional’ curriculum, including Latin, logic, and rhetoric. During our visit we got to hear a couple of recitations that Callum had to learn and present in front of his class. The kindergarten schedule has been quite a challenge for him, after the informality of day care for so many years. He was quite exhausted after a long day at school, and soon settled down to a good night’s sleep.

20150930 1038

Now that Callum is a pupil at NCA, Zoë is almost certainly guaranteed a place there when it’s her turn to start kinder. We had great fun with them during our visit. They certainly kept Grandma and Grandad entertained and occupied.

We made it up to Newcastle just twice this year, but Phil and Andi and the boys visited us a couple of times during the summer. Elvis and Felix spend four days each week at their day care centre just 100 m from home. As Phil compresses a five day working week into four days as a Senior Research Fellow at Northumbria University, she can spend Fridays with them. Elvis graduated to a bicycle on his 4th birthday in September; Felix has become an expert scooter rider.

It’s wonderful to see how all our grandchildren are growing and their personalities developing. We wish we could see everyone more regularly, but distance and work commitments make that difficult. Next year might be the first time we have all the family together. That would be something to look forward to.

Busy times at No. 4
We had a busy year around the house. In February we finally got around to having a proper loft access hatch and ladder installed, something we should have done years ago. No more fetching a step-ladder from the garage. In mid-May, we discovered that the underfelt on our roof had deteriorated badly, so had that completely replaced. Just a week later the worn-out tarmac drive was replaced with brick paving, and an electric garage door installed in mid-June. Hannah says that the house now has kerb appeal!

National Trust and English Heritage
This has been our fifth year as National Trust members, and whenever the weather permitted we had quite a number of day outings visiting thirteen properties. We also became members of English Heritage this year (annual membership was a Christmas present from Hannah and Philippa and families), and visited nine. We are fortunate that within less than 80 miles of home there are many NT and EH attractions to visit. English Heritage has given us access to many different types of property – ruined castles and the like that are not part of the National Trust’s portfolio. However, many of these are day outing ‘hanging fruits’ and we will have to go much further afield next year to visit a whole new range of venues, probably spending a night or two away in bed and breakfast accommodation. Being NT and EH members certainly is an incentive to make the best of the better weather days. Actually, on reflection the 2015 summer was not too bad, although August was cold and wet.

Fàilte gu Alba
Our Scotland trip lasted 13 days, and 2,260 miles. On Day 1, we headed to Mike’s sister’s home in Fife, just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, for one night. And then we headed north through Aberdeenshire, taking in the Cairngorms and Culloden battlefield, up the east coast to John o’ Groats, across the top of Scotland through Caithness and Sutherland, down the west coast as far south as Ullapool, and then over to the Outer Hebrides (Lewis and Harris, North and South Uist, and Eriskay) for five days. Returning to the mainland via the Isle of Skye, we headed further south on the west coast into Argyll and Bute, before heading southeast towards Loch Lomond and on south to home. We took in a couple of National Trust for Scotland gardens at Inverewe and Arduaine, but undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip were the mysterious Calanish Standing Stones on Lewis. Mike visited the Outer Hebrides (for bird-watching) in 1966 and 1967, but had not returned since; Steph had never been to the islands.

Despite the generally poor weather at the end of May, we actually didn’t do too badly. And looking at all the photos we took (almost 1000) there were many bright days as well. The weather did not stop us doing anything at all, which was quite a relief given the number of weather fronts that came powering in off the Atlantic.

The Outer Hebrides have not lost their magic, although a lot has changed in the past 48 years, most conspicuously in the housing. In the late 60s, most residents lived in thatched, stone cottages (or ‘blackhouses’), but almost all of these have now been abandoned.

We had long desired to make this Scotland trip, and now that’s something crossed off our ‘bucket list’. Maybe Northern Ireland next year.

The Windy City

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During our most recent visits to the USA since 2011, we have aimed to make a road trip to various parts. It was Arizona and New Mexico in 2011, the Minnesota Riviera in 2012, Oregon and northern California in 2013, and the Great Plains and Yellowstone last year. Having made our long road trip to Scotland, Mike didn’t fancy another one in the USA. But we did get out of the Twin Cities, if even for only three nights – travelling to Chicago and back by train. With temperatures hovering around 80F, we had a wonderful visit in that great city.

At home and in the garden
Steph is always busy keeping the garden looking lovely. 2015 has generally been a good garden year. It’s remarkable that even in November there was so much colour to see.

Mike keeps busy with this blog, with 270+ posts since its launch in early 2012, and more than 65 posts this year alone.

So, that’s a brief account of our year. Retirement continues sweet, and we’re already thinking about our travels for next year.

Fortunately we are keeping fit and well, apart from the odd creaky joint here and there – and a particularly nasty cold bug that hit us both towards the end of November and lasted for more than two weeks. No resistance! We trust our Christmas Letter finds you in mostly robust health.


Click here for a shorter print version.

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Santa’s the name, ho-ho-hoing’s the game

I’ve a secret to reveal. Shhhh!


Ho ho ho!

I’m Santa Claus, and I have the evidence to prove it.¹

Over the years I have taken up the mantle each December to bring joy and happiness to the children at the International Staff Housing community at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines.

Actually, I did my first turn, so to speak, in 2002; and each year thereafter until 2009. I retired from IRRI in April 2010.

I had a great deal of fun over the years assuming the persona of Santa Claus and, as far as I could tell, most of the children (of neighbors and their domestic helpers) never did figure out who was the person inside the Santa suit.

IRRI is a multi-national, multi-ethnic, and multi-religion community from all around the world. And it didn’t matter whether you came from a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist background, the children always found magic in Santa’s arrival and the giving and receiving of presents.

My early attempts at ‘being Santa’ certainly needed improvement – too heavy on the rouge. And in the early days I needed some extra padding, which I eventually dispensed with as my natural girth expanded. The beard was all mine, however, and I used to cease trimming it from about the beginning of October onwards. However, some additional white makeup was needed . By the end of 2008, I think I’d developed a much more convincing character.

Here I am in 2003 (heavy on the rouge) . . .

. . . and in 2004 (toned down somewhat).

By 2005, I think I’d developed the makeup pretty well.

Santa with two little Japanese fans, in 2005.

But there was still room for improvement, and once I’d decided in 2006 that Santa needed a new suit of clothes, my ‘interpretation’ thereafter was quite convincing.


Santa’s Japanese fans had grown somewhat, and joined by a brother, in 2008.


With ‘Mrs Santa’, in 2008.

Over the years, I arrived at the Christmas party—at the swimming pool, House No. 1 (of the Director General),  or the Guest House—on a variety of transports. In 2002 it was on the back of a motorcycle driven by my colleague Rob Raab from IRRI’s Training Center. For several years, it was a nicely decorated tricycle, then a jeepney and, for a couple of years, a ‘Philippine reindeer’, aka a carabao.

Of course, when it came to handing out presents, I had the best seat in the house, on the front row of course. It was such a delight to see the expectation and joy on so many young (and not so young) faces.

Well, my Santa days came to end. They were one of my more pleasurable commitments during my second decade at IRRI. And of course by then I’d grown somewhat more stout, my hair had turned almost white, and my whiskers as well.

Once my Santa duties were over, I’d leave the party using my appointed transport, go home, shower, and return to the celebrations sans make-up and Santa clothes. The children were none the wiser of my role, because I’d always started out at the party before going home to metamorphose into Santa.


¹ Most of the photos courtesy of the Santa paparazzi (aka Gene Hettel). smiley face copy


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 12. Hong Kong and Macau

We lived in the Philippines for almost 19 years. We spent most Christmas and New Year holidays there, not wanting to travel too much. Especially during the years that Hannah and Philippa were studying in the UK and USA and came back to our Philippines home for the holiday. We usually spent an extra few days lazing at the beach looking at the brilliantly blue South China Sea, scuba diving or just snorkeling, and making those tough decisions whether or not to have another cold beer.

But on a few occasions we did travel overseas: to Australia (in 1998 and 2003), Cambodia and Singapore in 2000, to the USA in 2007, and Hong Kong in 2004.

When I visited IRRI in early January 1991 for an interview I flew via Hong Kong. And we did the same for our first home leave back to the UK in June-July 1992. In those days it was the old airport at Kai Tak of course, an event in itself as the video below shows.

Over the years I’ve passed through Hong Kong on many occasions in transit to other destinations, but apart from just a short shopping stop-over in the 1992 on the way back from home leave, we had never taken the opportunity for tourism. So, just after Christmas 2004 we opted for a four night mini-break, through Cathay Pacific, which included return air travel from Manila, hotel, and a one day tour of Hong Kong island.

We flew out on the Tuesday after Christmas, on the 28th. Transport to our and from our hotel, The Knutsford Hotel on Kimberley Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon, was part of the package. But on the first day they wasn’t too much left of the day apart from a walk around the local shopping district along Nathan Road, and then a buffet dinner at the hotel.

Early the next morning we walked the short distance to our pickup point in front of the Miramar Shopping Centre on the corner with Nathan Road, and joined a coach-full of other tourists for the Hong Kong island trip. Now we are not usually attracted to organized city tours like this, much preferring to find our own way around. However, I should add that on a day off in Lisbon in 2003 I did take a two hour city tour and found it very useful, in the short space of time I had available, of getting to see parts of the city I wouldn’t have even explored on my own.

Anyway, to get back to Hong Kong. As I said, a city tour was part of the package and we thoroughly enjoyed it, taking in the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road, the funicular or Peak Tram to the top of the Peak, Stanley Market at the southern tip of the island, and to Aberdeen, and a tour of its harbor (which serves also as a typhoon refuge when necessary). It wasn’t a full day excursion, and we were probably back at our hotel by mid-afternoon. That evening we had a very nice meal in an Italian restaurant run by Filipinos – how weird is that in the heart of Hong Kong?

While waiting for several members of our party to rejoin the coach after visiting the Man Mo Temple, we overheard someone enquiring of the tour leader about excursions to Macau. We did the same, and were able to sign up there and then for a one-day trip to Macau the following day. And what a fortuitous choice we made. Now, the weather wasn’t the best the following day. It was overcast and, for Hong Kong, decidedly chilly. We joined the Hong Kong – Macau ferry and crossed the 60 km or so (just over an hour) across the Zhujiang River Estuary to the small autonomous territory known officially as the Macau Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

We were met at the ferry terminal in Macau and transferred to a coach, taking us through the maze of narrow streets to the Monte Fort and Macau Museum, from where we had fantastic (if not a little misty) over the old city. We also visited the plaza where the facade of the once impressive St Paul’s Cathedral still stands, a testament to Macau’s Portuguese heritage and Catholic faith. A trip to the observation deck of the free-standing Macau Tower, more than 220 m above the ground, yielded some great views over the whole territory, as well into neighboring mainland China from which the territory is separated on the west side by just a narrow channel. There is a land border on the north side. After lunch, and the last stop on our excursion, was a visit to one of the many large casinos for which Macau has become famous. I couldn’t be bothered to go inside. I don’t gamble, nor really approve of it. Frankly seeing the inside of this particular emporium was of no interest to me, and in any case, I didn’t want to be put under any pressure to waste my money. This was indeed what happened to those who did venture inside.

We arrived back in Kowloon just after 5 pm, and after a delay in Immigration and waiting for our coach, we arrived back at our hotel around 7 pm. We enjoyed a nice meal for two in a nearby French-Vietnamese restaurant.

On our last day, New Year’s Eve, it was bright and sunny so we headed over to Hong Kong island on the harbor ferry, and spent several hours exploring the area due south of the ferry terminal, past Government House along Lower Albert Road, the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, and making our way back to the ferry via the Central-Mid-Levels escalators, encountering a memorial to Philippine National Hero, Dr Jose Rizal who had lived in that area for six months from December 1891. As it was New Year’s Eve, we joined the festivities in the hotel rather than mingling with the thousands of revellers on Nathan Road to see in the New Year.

Our return flight to Manila on 1 January departed around 1 pm (if my memory serves me well) so we must have been back in Los Baños before 6 pm, a little tired, but pleased that we had finally made the effort to get to know Hong Kong better than we had in previous years. It’s certainly a vibrant city.