On political campaigns . . .

ballotbox copyI’m a bit of a news junkie, so I’ve been avidly following presidential election campaigns in three countries in online newspapers and on social media.

News from the US presidential election is never absent from the daily headlines, mainly because the two principal contenders on the Republican side, billionaire Donald Trump (or is that Donald Drumpf)¹ and evangelical Senator Ted Cruz, battling it out to win the nomination, increasingly descend to ever lower levels of political debate. Political debate? Their exchanges are not worthy of that epithet. Trump is hardly running an election campaign. I think it would be better to describe it as an election ego-trip.

You would hardly know there’s also an interesting contest on the Democrat side between former First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. At least they seem to be having a sensible debate.

The other campaigns that interest me are taking place in Peru in April, and in the Philippines in May. Why? Because I have lived and worked in both those countries.

Reading about the three campaigns, two quotations come to mind:

  • Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every nation gets the government it deserves) — attributed to Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821)
  • Democracy is being allowed to vote for the candidate you dislike least — Robert Byrne

Goodness knows what sort of campaign there will be in the US after the party conventions if Trump really does become the Republican candidate. He’s both scary and a worry. What will happen if he is ‘denied’ the nomination, and how will his supporters react. The violence we have seen so far directed by these folks against anti-Trump protesters does not bode well for the future.

But there are scary things going on in the Cruz camp as well. He is a right-wing evangelical Christian. And I’ve recently seen footage of him sharing the stage with a fundamentalist Christian preacher who, through his language was inciting Christians to violence, death even, against homosexuals. Because it says so in the Bible.

On the Democrat side, I’m actually surprised how well Bernie Sanders is doing, although I can’t believe he can win the nomination. Nor can I see a 74 year old candidate moving on to be a successful president.

In Peru and the Philippines, some of the candidates are as old as Sanders, but the political situation there is very different from the USA.

The polls in Peru seem to be dominated by Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the disgraced and gaoled former President Alberto Fujimori (who I met in the Philippines during his visit to IRRI). But Fujimori – daughter is also a controversial politician, believed to have benefited personally from her father’s corrupt government. Nevertheless, she is predicted to win the first round of voting. Another discredited candidate is the APRA former president Alan García who served two terms already (1985-1990, 2006-2011).

In the Philippines, which has a party system even weaker than that in Peru, the lists of candidates for both president and vice-president are filled with controversial characters. The posts of President and Vice-President are voted for separately (not as a single ticket in the USA), and it’s often the case that elected candidates come from different political persuasions and diametrically-opposed political platforms.

The current Vice-President Jejomar Binay heads yet another political dynasty, and has been accused of overwhelming corruption. The Mayor of Davao City (in Mindanao) Rodrigo Duterte has served his city for more than two decades, successfully apparently, and regarded as a political ‘hard man’. How a Duterte Administration would pan out nationally is anyone’s guess. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago is an outspoken – and (formerly) popular – international lawyer who, once she had declared her candidacy (despite being near death’s door from Stage 4 lung cancer only a short time before), was thought to be well placed to win the presidency. Until, that is, she chose Senator Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (aka ‘Bongbong’) as her running mate for vice-president. Son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos (ousted in a popular uprising in 1986), Bongbong is widely regarded as corrupt and implicated in many of the worst human rights excesses of his father’s regime. Another, Senator Grace Poe, has had her candidacy questioned because of her nationality, having taken US citizenship at one time, which she has now renounced. Which leaves us with the ‘administration’ candidate and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, Mar Roxas (a scion of yet another political dynasty). Is his wife Korina Sanchez a political liability??

So, in all three countries, the electorates are faced with choosing Presidents or Vice-Presidents from lists of some unsavory candidates, several of whom do not qualify (in my opinion) on ethical or moral grounds to ask for anyone’s vote, never mind political acumen or leadership potential, not even for the most humble elected post.

There will be bumpy political times and roads ahead in all three countries, whatever the election outcomes. Although not a General Election, we face an uncertain political (and economic) future here in the UK with the referendum on continuing membership of the European Union being held on 23 June. Political campaigning and false arguments have not brought out the best on either side of the referendum debate.

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¹ See the full 22 minute video here.

Through hard work, great things are achieved

BirminghamUniversityCrestPer Ardua Ad Alta

That’s the motto of The University of Birmingham, and ‘these sentiments sum up the spirit of Birmingham and illustrate the attitude of the people who have shaped both the city and the University.’

Almost 50 years ago, I had no inkling that I would have more than half a lifetime’s association with this university. Receiving its royal charter in 1900 (although the university was a successor to several institutions founded in the 19th century as early as 1828), Birmingham is the archetypal ‘redbrick university‘, located on its own campus in Edgbaston, about 3 miles southwest of Birmingham city center.


First encounter in 1967

My first visit to the university was in May or June 1967—to sit an exam. Biology was one of the four subjects (with Geography, English Literature, and General Studies) I was studying for my Joint Matriculation Board Advanced Level high school certificate (essentially the university entrance requirement) here in the UK. We were only four or five biology students at my high school, St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent (motto: Fideliter et Fortiter).

Now, I don’t remember (maybe I never knew) whether we were too few in number to sit our biology practical exam at the school, or all students everywhere had to attend an examination venue, but we set off by train from Stoke to Birmingham, and ended up at the School of Biological Sciences building. It was a new building then, and the (federal) School had only recently been formed from the four departments of Botany, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Genetics, and Microbiology.

Just before 2 pm, the five of us—and about 100 other students—trooped into the main laboratory (that I subsequently came to know as the First Year Lab) on the second floor. Little did I know that just over three years later I’d be joining the Department of Botany as a graduate student, nor that 14 years later in 1981 I would join the faculty as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Nothing could have been further from my mind as I settled down to tackle a dissection of the vascular system of a rat, and the morphology of a gorse flower, among other tasks to attempt.

Birmingham was not on the list of universities to which I had applied in December 1966. I’d chosen King’s College, London (geography), Aberystwyth (zoology and geography), Southampton (botany and geography), York (biology), Queen Mary College, London (general biological sciences), and Newcastle (botany and geography). In the end, I chose Southampton, and spent three very happy if not entirely fruitful years there.

Entering the postgraduate world

Jack Hawkes

Jack Hawkes

The next time I visited Birmingham was in February 1970. I had applied to join the recently-founded postgraduate MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I was interviewed by Course Director and Head of the Department of Botany, Professor JG Hawkes and Senior Lecturer and plant ecologist, Dr Denis Wilkins.

Despite the grilling from both of  them, I must have made an impression because I was offered a place for the following September. The only problem: no support grant. Although Hawkes had applied for recognition by one of the research councils to provide postgraduate studentships, nothing had materialized when I applied (although he was successful the following year, and for many years afterwards providing studentships to British students). So, after graduation from Southampton in July 1970 I was on tenterhooks all summer as I tried to sort out a financial solution to attend the course. Finally, around mid-August, I had a phone call from Hawkes telling me that the university would provide a small support grant. It was only £380 for the whole year, to cover all my living expenses including rent. That’s the equivalent of about £5600 today. The university would pay my fees.

All set then. I found very comfortable bed-sit accommodation a couple of miles from the university, and turned up at the department in early September to begin my course, joining four other students (from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela). It was during this one year course that I really learned how to study, and apart from my weekly Morris dancing night, I had few other distractions. It was study, study, study: and it paid off. The rest is history. I graduated in September 1971, by which time I’d been offered a one-year position at the newly-founded International Potato CenterCIP logo (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and I was all set for a career (I hoped) in the world of genetic resources and conservation. As it turned out, my travel to South America was delayed by more than a year during which time I registered for and commenced a PhD study on potatoes, finally landing in Lima in January 1973 and beginning a career in international agricultural research that lasted, on and off, until my retirement in 2010. I carried out most of my PhD research in Peru, and submitted my thesis in October 1975.

Jack Hawkes and me discussing landrace varieties of potatoes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974.

Graduation December 1975. L to R: Jack Hawkes (who co-supervised my PhD), me, and Trevor Williams (who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources). Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation.

Then I returned to Lima, spending another five years with CIP in Costa Rica carrying out research on bacterial diseases of potatoes among other things.

I should add that during the academic year 1971-72, a young woman, Stephanie Tribble, joined the MSc course. A few months later we became an ‘item’.

Steph’s MSc graduation at the University of Birmingham in December 1972, just weeks before I flew to South America and join the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.

After graduation, she joined the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh, but joined me in Lima in July 1973. We married there in October, and she also had a position with CIP for the years we remained in Lima.

A faculty position
On 1 April 1981 I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology.

Richard Sawyer

By mid-1980, after almost five years in Costa Rica, I felt that I had achieved as much as I could there, and asked my Director General in Lima, Dr Richard Sawyer, for a transfer to a new position. In November, we moved back to Lima, and I was expecting to be posted either to Brazil or possibly to the Philippines. In the meantime, I had been alerted to a recently-established lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham, and had been encouraged to apply¹. With encouragement from Richard Sawyer², and having been invited for interview, I made the trek back to the UK from Lima towards the end of January 1981. The interview process then was very different from what might be expected nowadays. No departmental seminar. Just a grilling from a panel chaired by the late Professor John Jinks, FRS, Dean of the Faculty of Science and head of the Department of Genetics. There were three staff from Plant Biology (Hawkes, Dennis Wilkins, and Brian Ford-Lloyd), and the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Deputy Dean, Professor Derek Walker.

We were three candidates. Each interview lasted about 45 minutes, and we all had to wait outside the interview room to learn who would be selected. I was interviewed last. Joining the other two candidates afterwards, we sat side-by-side, hardly exchanging a word between us, nervously waiting for one of us to be called back in to meet the panel. I was the lucky one. I was offered the position, accepted immediately, and a couple of days later flew back to Lima to break the news and make plans to start a new life with Steph and our daughter Hannah (then almost three) in Birmingham.

Over the 10 years I spent at Birmingham I never had the worry (or challenge) of teaching any First Year Course – thank goodness. But I did contribute a small module on agricultural systems to the Second Year common course (and became the Second Year Chair in the School of Biological Sciences), as well as sharing teaching of flowering plant taxonomy to plant biology stream students mtj-and-bfl-book-launchin the Second Year. With my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (with whom I’ve published three books on genetic resources) I developed a Third Year module on genetic resources that seems to have been well-received (from some subsequent feedback I’ve received). I also contributed to a plant pathology module for Third Year students. But the bulk of my teaching was to MSc students on the graduate course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources – the very course I’d attended a decade earlier. My main focus was crop evolution, germplasm collecting, and agricultural systems, among others. And of course there was supervision of PhD and MSc student research projects.

One of the responsibilities I enjoyed was tutoring undergraduate students, and always had an open door if they needed to see me. It quite shocked me in the late 1990s when my elder daughter, then a student at Swansea University, told me that her tutors had very limited and defined access hours for students. Of course you can’t be on call all day, every day, but you have to be there if a student really need to see you. And my tutees knew that if my office door was open (as it mostly was) they were free to come in and see me.

Once the four departments of the School of Biological Sciences merged into a single department in 1988, I aligned myself with and joined the Plant Genetics Group, and found a better role for myself. I also joined and became Deputy Chair of a cross-disciplinary group called Environmental Research Management (ERM) whose aim was to promote the strength of environment-related research across the university. Through ERM I became acquainted with Professor Martin Parry, and together with Brian Ford-Lloyd we published a book on genetic resources and climate change in 1990, and another in 2014 after we had retired.

Moving on
Even though the prospect of promotion to Senior Lecturer was quite good (by 1989 I’d actually moved on to the Senior Lecturer pay scale), I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with university life by that time. Margaret Thatcher and her government had consistently assaulted the higher education sector, and in any case I couldn’t see things getting any better for some years to come. In this I was unfortunately proved correct. In September 1990 a circular dropped into my post, advertising a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This was for a germplasm specialist and first head of the Genetic Resources Center. So I applied, was interviewed in January 1991, and accepted the position with a view to joining the institute from 1 July. They actually wanted me to start on 1 April. But as I explained—and IRRI Management accepted—I had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill at the university. In February I began to teach my third year module on genetic resources for the last time, and set the exams for all students to take in May and June. Once the marking and assessments had been completed, I was free to leave.

Friday 28 June was my last day, ending with a small farewell party in the School. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. And, as they say, the rest is history. I never looked back. But now, retirement is sweet, as are my memories.

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¹ Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 and, recognizing that his departure would leave a big hole in the MSc teaching, the university approved the recruitment of a lecturer in plant genetic resources (with a focus on crop evolution, flowering plant taxonomy, and the like) essentially covering those areas where Jack had contributed.
² Dick Sawyer told me that applying for the Birmingham position was the right thing to do at that stage of my career. However, the day before I traveled to the UK he called me to his office to wish me well, and to let me know whichever way the interview went, he would have a new five-year contract waiting on his desk for me on my return. From my point of view (and I hope CIP’s) it was a win-win situation. Thus I left for the interview at Birmingham full of confidence.

 

Once upon a time in Barsetshire

Anthony Trollope

The novels of 19th century writer Anthony Trollope are not an easy read. Indeed, ‘challenging’ might be a better description. It’s not the tales themselves that’s the difficulty, but Trollope’s style and literary techniques¹ that are no longer fashionable. Yet, as I have found with great pleasure over several decades, they are worth the effort.

I first became acquainted with the works of  Anthony Trollope in 1976. Steph and I were doing a weekly shop in San José, Costa Rica. We had relocated there in early April to establish a research program on breeding heat- and disease-resistant potatoes in Turrialba for the International Potato Center (CIP).

Having spent an hour at one of San José’s better supermarkets, we decided to investigate The English Bookshop (I think that was its name) in one of the side streets near the city center and see what literary delights it had to offer.

The shelves were stacked with all the current best sellers: crime, thrillers, a modicum of erotica. None of them were cheap, however. And once I’ve bought a book, I never like to discard them. I just didn’t think that much of what was on offer deserved a place on my bookshelf, not at those prices – whether or not that’s a rather arrogant attitude towards the popular fiction of the 1970s.

As it happened, the wife of a colleague from Turrialba was in the bookshop at the same time. Mary Boynton, a retired professor of English Literature at Cornell University had accompanied her husband Damon Boynton, a retired professor of pomology at Cornell on a short term consultancy at CATIE, the institute to which I had also been seconded. Anyway, as I was browsing the shelves, I asked Mary if she could recommend any of the novels spread out before us.

Why don’t you try these‘, she suggested, pointing at a group of books by Anthony Trollope. These were the six Palliser novels², tales of politics, preferment, aristocratic intrigue, the Irish question. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound (well, several £££ in this case) and I bought the first in the series, hoping that if I did enjoy it, the others would still be available on a later visit. However, I didn’t anticipate there would be much of a market for Trollope in 1970s Costa Rica.

Alan Rickman

And enjoy them I did. The remaining Palliser novels found a home in my library, as did Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire³, another six books recounting the lives of the great and good, the Church, and the ‘lower and artisan classes’ in the fictitious counties of West and East Barsetshire; and linked to the Palliser novels through at least one character in common: the Duke of Omnium (bachelor uncle to Plantagenet Palliser). Several of the novels are centred around the ecclesiastical community of Barchester. So it was a delight, after we returned to the UK, in 1981 that the BBC broadcast an adaptation (The Barchester Chronicles) of the first two of these novels (The Warden, Barchester Towers) and starring a relative newcomer to our screens, the late lamented (and young) Alan Rickman as the Reverend Obadiah Slope, the bishop’s chaplain (here with the late Donald Pleasance as the Rev. Septimus Harding – the Warden).

The Palliser novels were adapted for television (in 26 episodes) in 1974 by Simon Raven and have recently been rebroadcast on daytime television. The Pallisers starred Philip Latham as Plantagenet Palliser and Susan Hampshire as his vibrant and wealthy wife Lady Glencora M’Cluskie. Today, the production seems so dated compared to recent offerings.

Dr. Thorne on TV
In the past month, an adaptation of the third of the Barchester novels, Dr. Thorne, has been broadcast on ITV (one of the UK’s commercial channels) with all the drawbacks of commercial breaks every ten to fifteen minutes. Adapted for television by Julian Fellowes—the creator and writer of Downton Abbeythis adaptation of Dr. Thorne suffered from Fellowes’ inability to write a scene lasting more than 30 seconds (I’ve never been a fan of Downton Abbey). I exaggerate of course. But the narrative moved swiftly on from one set piece to another. On the whole, the first two episodes were fine, but the third was a complete let-down. Very wooden. But not everyone agrees.

Oh for the more leisurely (and commercial-free) pace of a BBC production. The celebrated writer Andrew Davies has adapted to many of the great works of literature for the small screen, including Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in 1995, and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy earlier this year.

However, the locations chosen for filming Dr. Thorne, the costumes, and the whole look and feel of the production were outstanding. But the cast of characters as dramatised by Julian Fellowes were generally one dimensional, except for the wonderful Ian McShane as the nouveau riche railway baron, Sir Roger Scatcherd. And Rebecca Front as Lady Arabella Gresham was another joy to watch. The character of Dr. Thorne was played by Tom Hollander.

In the book itself, Dr. Thorne is obviously the central character, a sensitive yet strong character. I’m not convinced this was captured as satisfactorily on screen. Maybe it was the writing as Hollander’s performance per se was also very good. As it happened that Tom Hollander was appearing at the same hour (it started a couple of weeks earlier) in another production on the BBC, The Night Manager (adapted from a John Le Carré novel), playing a homosexual, psychopathic factotum. Two opposite characters could hardly be dreamed up, and unintentionally might have prejudiced my take on Hollander’s Dr. Thorne.

Dr. Thorne was broadcast over three Sundays at 9 pm. Given how commercial breaks can, and do, disrupt the narrative, I wonder if adaptations of this type are better suited to the commercial-free environment of the BBC, and portrayed at a slower pace over more episodes. Even two episodes, each 90 minutes with no breaks, would lend themselves perhaps to a more satisfactory and enjoyable experience.

However, having been left somewhat dissatisfied with the TV production, I decided to retrieve Dr. Thorne from my library. I’m now more than half way through. It’s just as enjoyable today as when I first tackled it almost 40 years when I found a copy in a secondhand bookshop in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex—a reprint from 1915! I think it’s time to immerse myself once again in the world of the Pallisers, which should keep me occupied for a few months more.

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¹ For example, even as the narrative is romping along, Trollope will call a halt and, as though someone quite disconnected from the story, begin a commentary on the events. He also uses an interesting technique of addressing the reader from time-to-time, seeking as it were a response on what is happening and what this character or that should do. It’s rather like talking to camera as a kind of narrative, employed quite successfully by comedienne Miranda Hart in her series Miranda. Even though she might be in the middle of a sketch, the narrative might  stop, and she talks direct to camera, to the audience, to great effect.

² Can You Forgive Her? (1864); Phineas Finn (1869); The Eustace Diamonds (1873); Phineas Redux (1874); The Prime Minister (1876); The Duke’s Children (1879)

³ The Warden (1855); Barchester Towers (1857); Doctor Thorne (1858); Framley Parsonage (1861); The Small House at Allington (1864); The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

Nature abhors a vacuum . . .

PACIFIC_Royal.inddI’m thoroughly enjoying Simon Winchester’s Pacific – the Ocean of the Future (published in 2015 by William Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-755075-3), which I received for Christmas 2015. I already mentioned it in a recent post.

With a Prologue (The lonely sea and the sky), an author’s note (On carbon), and an epilogue (The call of the running tide), the chapters are ten essays on a range of topics about the Pacific Ocean, its geography, politics, and history since 1 January 1950 (Before Present):

  • Chapter 1: The great thermonuclear sea (all about the series of atomic bomb test at many locations in the Pacific in the 1950s)
  • Chapter 2: Mr Ibuka’s radio revolution (Sony and the transistor revolution)
  • Chapter 3: The ecstasies of wave riding (the rise of surfing culture, from Hawaii to California)
  • Chapter 4: A dire and dangerous irritation (North Korea)
  • Chapter 5: Farewell, all my friends and foes (the end of colonialism)
  • Chapter 6: Echoes of distant thunder (the Pacific and world weather)
  • Chapter 7: How goes the lucky country? (Australia)
  • Chapter 8: The fires in the deep (deep ocean exploration)
  • Chapter 9: A fragile and uncertain sea (climate change and other environmental challenges)
  • Chapter 10: Of masters and commanders (the emergence/resurgence of China)

It was Chapter 5 on the end of colonialism that fired the neurons in my brain, resurrecting several memories from the deep recesses of my mind. It began with an account of the Cunard ocean liner, RMS Queen Elizabeth and her demise after catching fire (in what appears to have been a deliberate act of sabotage) in Hong Kong harbor. The head of the company that had bought the QE, Tung Chee Hwa, became the first Chinese-appointed chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region after the Union Jack was lowered on 30 June 1997 and British rule came to an end.

The essay in Chapter 6 described how the Pacific Ocean influences weather systems right across the globe. Pacific Ocean weather is something in both its glory and at its most ferocious I came to appreciate and experience during my 19 years in the Philippines.

But it was the tenth essay, about the geopolitics of the South China Sea, that made me sit up and really take notice. Hardly a week goes by without some report in the media about the territorial claims to the islands of and expansion into the South China Sea by the People’s Republic of China. Absurdly (but not obviously from a Chinese perspective) China has laid claim to almost all the South China Sea, riding roughshod over the legitimate (and, it has to be said, the conflicting claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia). But even a cursory glance at a map of the South China Sea shows just how outrageous China’s claims and actions are.

south-china-sea

China has even taken to building outposts on a number of islands, reefs and atolls, obviously destined to become military bases with sophisticated defences and airfields to take the biggest planes.

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Chinese claims
While China’s claims to the South China Sea stretch back to the end of the Second World War, it’s only in the past 25 years that this regional expansion has increased, and both the civil and military mobilized to achieve its aims. For the first time in 2006, evidence of China’s blue water navy aspirations and expanding naval capabilities was seen when a Chinese submarine sailed unnoticed within a few miles of a US carrier fleet. Over the years there have been a number of close encounters of the military kind. So far, both countries have managed to keep a lid on these confrontations escalating into a ‘shooting war’. But for how long?

Now, until I read Winchester’s account in Chapter 10, I had not put two and two together, even though I lived in the Philippines for almost two decades. Two events—one natural, one political—occurred in 1991, and subsequent analysis allows me to ask one of the important ‘What ifs’ of Southeast Asia history. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of the events of that year. Part of this will not make particularly comfortable reading for many Filipinos, I fear. Nevertheless it’s an interesting perspective on what events encouraged the Chinese to assert themselves as they have done, much to the chagrin of her neighbours. Not that China is concerned it seems, about their counter claims, or that much of the area they claim as sovereign territory is viewed as international waters or airspace. A UN international tribunal in The Hague, to which the Philippines had taken its case, ruled against China. But that will make no difference. China does not recognize the tribunal. Economic prowess and military might are what count.

The events of 1991
In 1991, Mt Pinatubo awoke from its slumber of many centuries, and erupted on 15 June in a climactic explosion, depositing ash over a huge area. This dire situation was further exacerbated because Typhoon Yunya (Diding in the Philippines) hit Luzon on precisely the same day. Within spitting distance of Pinatubo were located two of the US’s most important overseas military bases: Clark Field, nestling at the foot of the volcano near Angeles City, and Subic Bay, home to the US Seventh Fleet, and one of the most important naval facilities that the US had access to anywhere. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of different events of that year.

Mt Pinatubo (from Clark Air Base) erupting on 12 June 1991, three days before the climactic eruption that led to the abandonment of the airbase in November that year.

At Clark it became clear within a day or two of the eruption, and covered in feet of volcanic ash, that the airbase would have to be abandoned. Aircraft had been flown out beforehand and personnel successfully evacuated to Subic. In November 1991 the US Air Force closed Clark¹.

At the end of 1991 there was perhaps an even more event, political this time, that has perhaps contributed more to the present South China Sea situation than the Pinatubo eruption ever did. In an increasingly nationalistic Senate, the future of an American presence in the Philippines was being debated. The Senate rejected a treaty that would have extended use of Subic Bay because of concerns over the presence of nuclear weapons (which the US would not reveal). Finally at the end of December 1991, the then president Cory Aquino informed the US government that US forces would have to leave the Philippines by the end of 1992. The US Navy pulled out in November 1992.

And into the vacuum left by the US departure cleverly stepped the Chinese, sensing the opportunity to fulfill their long-standing regional geopolitical ambitions. The rest is history; the Chinese are now well and truly entrenched in the South China Sea, and will not be easily budged. There is, however, another interesting twist to the story. In January 2016, the Philippines Supreme Court approved the return of US troops to bases in the Philippines, as a counter to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. What goes around comes around?

What if?
What if Pinatubo had never blown her top on that fateful June day in 1991? What if the US had been more forthcoming about the status of nuclear weapons during the finely balanced base renewal negotiations in 1991? What if the Philippines Senate had not openly expressed its rejection of the treaty in a display of anti-colonialism? What if the US navy had never left?

Would the Chinese have been off the mark with such alacrity, developing its own blue water navy, and (with contempt, many would say) revealing its true regional hegemonic ambitions? Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. The Chinese have been only too happy to fill the military vacuum.

Let us hope that the war of words being fought over the South China Sea never evolves into a ‘hot war’. Notwithstanding Chinese intransigence and, it has to be said, overt hostility at times, it may depend in some degree on who occupies the White House after next November’s presidential election in the US. The jingoistic foreign policy rhetoric of a couple of the Republican candidates does not give me much cause for optimism.

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¹ In the intervening years, it should be noted, Clark has been refurbished and reopened as Clark International Airport. Were it closer to Manila, and connected with better transport links, Clark could well have become Manila’s principal airport, relieving congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, close-by Manila’s business district of Makati.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 13. Tales (mainly) from the ‘Ring of Fire’

Earth, wind, and fire (not that Earth, Wind & Fire—still active 45 years after the group formed).

No, these are some reflections, going back almost as far as EWF, about my encounters with and experiences of earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanoes (fortunately mostly dormant) around the Ring of Fire.

But first, a summer morning in west Wales
Take 19 July 1984 for example. Steph and I with our two daughters Hannah and Philippa were enjoying a week’s holiday in Pembrokeshire, in west Wales. We’d rented a nice cottage, in Broad Haven, on the coast south of St David’s. As usual, one of us had gone downstairs to make a cup of tea. Steph says it was her; I think it was me. No matter. But just as the tea-maker was about to climb the stairs back to our bedroom (lying in bed, waking up to and enjoying a cup of tea, is one of life’s simple pleasures), we felt the house shake. There had been an earth tremor, hardly worthy of the description ‘earthquake’. But noticeable enough, especially if, like me, you had become sensitized to such tectonic events.

Further north, close to the epicenter on the Llŷn Peninsula, it was much stronger, registering 5.4 on the Richter scale, and was ‘the largest known onshore earthquake to occur in the UK since instrumental measurements began‘. It was felt all over Wales and many parts of England. Chimneys fell from roofs. Liverpool was apparently quite badly hit.

But a Richter 5 quake in the UK is nothing compared to what I have experienced along the ‘Ring of Fire‘.

October 1974
Thursday 3 October started as a normal day. Steph and I had taken the staff bus from our apartment in the Lima district of Miraflores to the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina (on the eastern outskirts of the city, and close to the National Agrarian University). We didn’t have our car that day. The government had introduced a gasoline rationing system, and the decal we choose allowed us to drive only over the weekends and on alternate days during the week. This is relevant.

36 chromosomes from a triploid potato variety.

I had arranged to show one of the laboratory technicians how to make chromosome preparations from potatoes. Then, around 09:20, as I was enjoying a cup of coffee, and without any warning, the whole building started to rock and shake backwards and forwards. Clearly this was more than the all-too-frequent earth tremors or temblores that we were ‘used’ to. We all rushed out of the building into the car park. I was still carrying my cup of coffee! And in the car park we all endeavored to remain upright as the ground rolled back and forth, almost a meter at a time, for over two minutes! At La Molina the earthquake (or terremoto) was recorded over 8 on the Richter Scale. Remember of course that the scale is a logarithmic one, so the La Molina earthquake was hundreds of times more powerful than the alarming Llŷn Peninsula version in 1984.

Damage to laboratories and offices at CIP was considerable.

Fortunately there were fewer than 80 deaths and only a couple of thousand injuries around the city, because many people were already in their places of work that were better constructed to withstand an earthquake. However, it was the continual aftershocks (the strongest—at 7.1—felt on Saturday 9 November just before 08:00 as military parade was commencing in downtown Lima) that unnerved everyone. Ever since I have been hypersensitive to any sort of movement of that kind. ‘Did the earth move for you?‘ holds no pleasant connotations.

However, it was in May 1973 that I saw first hand the aftermath of a powerful earthquake. My colleague, Zosimo Huaman and I were away from Lima on a three-week trip to collect native varieties of potatoes from farmers in the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad in central-northern Peru. Just north of Huaraz in the Callejon de Huaylas, and beneath Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán, lie the remains of two towns, Yungay and Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a huge earthquake triggered an ice and rock landslide from the top of Huascarán, which quickly sped down the mountain obliterating everything in its path. More than 70,000 people lost their lives, and the two towns were destroyed. When we visited just three years later the scene in Yungay was one of utter devastation, with just a few palm trees surviving, and the statue of Christ in the cemetery.

Further north, Zosimo and I had the opportunity of visiting several remote villages on foot. In one (I don’t recall the name) we were welcomed as honored guests, and in my case, as a representative of Queen Elizabeth. After making a short speech of thanks in broken Spanish to about 200 residents gathered in the ‘town hall’, everyone came up and shook my hand. Apparently they had received no help for the government to rebuild their communities nor livelihoods even three years after the earthquake.

Over the course of our three years in Lima, five years in Costa Rica, and almost 19 years in the Philippines, we felt many earth tremors, some stronger than others, but never as awe-inspiring or sphincter-challenging as that in October 1974.

Winds over the Pacific
The Pacific Ocean sees its fair share of tropical storms and stronger. Severe storms in the Pacific are called ‘typhoons’, and the Philippines is unlucky to be battered, on average, by 20 or more each year.  Developing way to the east in the open ocean, typhoons head due west towards the Philippines, but often veer northwards and clip the northern tip of the main island of Luzon. Nevertheless, the weather effects of high winds and heavy and prolonged rainfall can affect a much wider area than hit by the ‘eye of the storm’. Some typhoons do head straight for Metro Manila and its 11.8 million population, many living in poverty.

During our almost two decades in Los Baños (working and living at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, some 65 km south of Manila, we were hit by just a couple of super typhoons (although after our departure in May 2010 there have been others) but we did feel the effects of many of the typhoons that barreled into the country, disrupting daily life and communications.

I was away in Laos on 3 November 1995 when Los Baños was hit by Super Typhoon Angela (known as Rosing in the Philippines). I’d departed totally unaware that a typhoon was headed for the Philippines, let alone one that was expected to develop into a ‘super typhoon’. It was only when I tried to phone home during the height of the storm that I realised what I had missed. You can experience something of the force of this typhoon and the unimaginable rainfall that accompanied it in the video below, made by my neighbor and former colleague, Gene Hettel.

At the end of September 2006, the Philippines was hit by Typhoon Milenyo. This was a slow-moving typhoon, dumping a huge amount of rain. In the Los Baños area, most damage was caused by flooding not by the wind. Laguna de Bay rose several meters. The Philippines national genebank in Los Baños was flooded to a depth of several meters because debris washed down the sides of nearby Mt Makiling accumulated created a log jam under a bridge and causing the creek to overflow.

At IRRI Staff Housing, there were several major landslips and the integrity of the Guesthouse and several houses threatened. Creeks around the campus of the University of the Philippines – Los Baños were scoured, and much timber and other vegetation felled.

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Since 2010, there have been two super typhoons. In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines) killed more than 6000 people in the Philippines, and was the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall. Many of the deaths in Tacloban were caused by a storm surge. And in July 2014 (just before I made a visit to IRRI) Super Typhoon Glenda did considerable damage to IRRI’s glasshouses and other buildings. Here is another video by Gene Hettel taken at the height of Super Typhoon Glenda.

Now the fire . . . 
I lived on the slopes of two volcanoes for almost 24 years; in Costa Rica, on Volcán Turrialba and in the Philippines, on Mt Makiling. On one occasion I got to the top of Turrialba, driving most of the way with a colleague from CATIE, Dr Andrew King and his wife Heather. That must have been about 1976 or 1977. I almost made it to the top of Makiling, but the final stretch—almost vertical and defeating my arthritic hips—was impossible. Makiling has been dormant for centuries. Turrialba had been inactive for a hundred years but burst into life at the end of October 2014.

To the west of Turrialba stands the Irazú volcano, the highest in Costa Rica at more than 3400 m. It has a perfect crater with a turquoise lake.

The main potato growing area of Costa Rica is found on the slopes of Irazú, and I’ve spent many a long week planting research trials and growing seed potatoes there. After the 1963 eruption, meters of volcanic ash were dumped on the slopes. The soils today are fine, deep and fertile.

A field of potatoes, var. Atzimba, above Cartago on the slopes of the Irazú volcano in Costa Rica.

Los Baños is surrounded by volcanoes.

Mt Makiling from the IRRI research station and rice fields (looking northwest).

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Mt Banahaw and other volcanoes near San Pablo, south and southeast from the IRRI research station.

About 20 km or so as the crow flies almost due west from Los Baños lies the Taal volcano, apparently one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.

Taal volcano and volcano island from Tagaytay, on the northern rim of a vast caldera.

During our time in the Philippines there was the occasional rumble, but nothing significant since its last major eruption in 1977. Some 400 km southeast from Los Baños and north of the port city of Legazpi is the Mayon volcano, a perfect cone. This is very active and farmers often have to be evacuated when an eruption occurs.

Rice farmer Gloria Miranda’s house at the foot of Mayon Volcano was threatened by lava flows in July 2006. (Photo courtesy of IRRI. Photo by Ariel Javellana).

However, I’ve never been affected directly by a volcanic eruption, only indirectly. Let me explain.

Mt Pinatubo
At the beginning of January 1991 I was invited to interview for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI. I flew out from Gatwick on British Airways via Hong Kong, after a 13 hour delay in London. After a week at IRRI, I flew back to the UK. Uneventful you may say, and so it was. At the end of January, IRRI offered me the position, and I accepted to join in July that year once I’d completed some teaching and examination commitments at The University of Birmingham.

From mid-March, Mount Pinatubo, a seemingly innocuous volcano north of Manila, began to show signs of seismic activity. In early June there was a series of eruptions, but the massive, climactic eruption of 15 June had a massive effect over a huge area. Ash fell on Los Baños, 150 km to the south.

Fewer than 900 people lost their lives, due in no small part to the evacuations that had been enforced in the days leading up to the 15 June eruption.Nevertheless, the impact on humans, livestock and agriculture in general was immense and pitiful.

On June 15, 1991, this is the eruption plume minutes after the climactic eruption.

Manila airport was closed for days, flights were diverted. This was just a fortnight before I was scheduled to fly to the Philippines. Glued to the news each day I waited to see what the outcome would be. Fortunately I was able to travel on 30 June. But it was touch and go.

Over a year later, when we visited the flight deck of a British Airways 747 out of Hong Kong bound for Manila, the First Officer indicated that flights into the Philippines had to take well-defined flight paths to avoid the lingering ash layers at certain levels in the atmosphere, clearly visible to the naked eye.

A volcano with an unpronounceable name
And when it was time to return to the UK in 2010 on my retirement, it was another volcano, thousands of miles from the Philippines, that almost derailed our travel plans. We had booked to fly back (on our usual Emirates route via Dubai) on Sunday 2 May. But just a fortnight or so earlier, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano had erupted; the ever expanding ash cloud effectively closed the airspace over much of Europe for many days.

The estimated ash cloud at 18:00 GMT on 15 April, just a day after the main eruption began.

Once again Fortune smiled on us, and we returned to the UK without delay or incident. Nevertheless, the disruption to air travel, inconvenience to passengers, and not least the economic costs just illustrate how feeble humanity is in the face of the forces of Nature.

Having ‘survived’ numerous earth tremors (or worse) I’m now highly sensitive to anything that smacks of an earthquake. I’m instantly alert. The fugitive impulse kicks in immediately. And you never know, even here in the UK when the next tremor will hit.

The UK is experiencing ever more severe winter storms, with gale-force winds. Not quite on the typhoon scale, but damaging enough, all the same. I hate lying in bed hearing the wind howling around, gusting as though the chimney might be toppled at any moment.

But unless I choose to, I’m unlikely to encounter an active volcano any time soon. Touch wood! However, those Icelandic volcanoes can be highly unpredictable.

 

Farewell to a Queen . . .

Halloween. 31 October 1967. Tuesday.

I’d been an undergraduate at the University of Southampton for less than a month, and here I was already skipping classes. But, in my defence, it was for a once-in-a-lifetime event. For that was the day that the iconic ocean liner, RMS Queen Mary, owned and operated by the Cunard Line, made her last voyage from her home port of Southampton, bound (via Cape Horn) to Long Beach, California where she was destined to become a luxury hotel and major tourist attraction. Almost 50 years on, she is still a fixture on the Long Beach skyline.

QueenMary31-10-67

What started as just a whim among a group of friends quickly gained traction. And once we’d persuaded one of our colleagues, Tom Power (a mature student who was studying geology and, more importantly, had his own set of wheels) we had to decide on the best vantage point from which to observe the Queen Mary glide down Southampton Water towards the Isle of Wight and the English Channel. My father’s cousin, Chris Jewett and her husband Norman (and daughters of roughly my age, Anne and Pat) lived in Weston, on the east shore of Southampton Water, and just south of what was then Cunard’s Ocean Terminal in the port. I checked with her and was told that they would have an excellent view from the terrace of their house overlooking Southampton Water. And so, quite early in the morning that’s where about five of us headed, piled into Tom’s Hillman Imp.

And what a magnificent sight the Queen Mary was, surrounded by a flotilla of sailing vessels of all sizes. She was escorted on her way by tug boats, and overhead flew a squadron of helicopters.

PACIFIC_Royal.inddSo what has brought all these memories to the surface. Well, I’m about halfway through a book I was given last Christmas called Pacific: The Ocean of the Future by Simon Winchester. It’s an interesting series of essays about events and people that have shaped the history and influence of this region of the world. The first chapters were concerned with the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, the rise of surfing as a Pacific Ocean phenomenon, the ‘nuisance’ (his words) that is North Korea and, in the chapter that I have just begun, Winchester describes the demise of the Queen Mary’s younger sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. After the Queen Elizabeth had been decommissioned, it was sold as a possible tourist rival to the Queen Mary (but on the US east coast), but eventually made its final voyage to Hong Kong destined to become the floating  Seawise University. Instead it ended up lying on its starboard side, settling into the mud of Hong Kong harbour in January 1972. In what was clearly a well-planned arson attack, the beautiful Queen Elizabeth was destroyed in a wanton act of violence. It was scrapped two years later but its steel lives on in the many skyscrapers that make up the Hong Kong skyline. The Parker Pen Company made a limited edition pen from the salvaged brass fittings on board. What could not be salvaged, mainly the keel, now lies buried beneath one of Hong Kong’s container ports on land reclaimed from the sea.

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RMS Queen Elizabeth on fire in Hong Kong Harbour in January 1972

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The once magnificent RMS Queen Elizabeth lying on her starboard side and settling into the mud of Hong Kong Harbour

My father, Fred Jackson, was born in 1908 in the Staffordshire brewing town of Burton upon Trent in the English Midlands. It hard to think of anywhere in the country that’s further from the coast than Burton. Yet, he and his younger brother Edgar both had naval careers, and when war broke out in 1939 and they were finally conscripted into the armed forces, they joined the Royal Navy. But in the previous decade my father had sailed the Atlantic almost 100 times as ship’s photographer on ships operated by the Cunard White Star Line. His favourite ship was the RMS Aquitania.

He met my mother on one of these Atlantic crossings, and before they married in 1936 they returned to the UK on board the Aquitania. He did not serve on either the Queen Mary (launched 1934) or the Queen Elizabeth (launched 1938). However, I recall my mother mentioning that she had sailed just the once on the Queen Mary, but I may be mistaken.

Apart from my university days in Southampton, our family has a long ‘Southampton connection’. Dad’s aunt and uncle, Albert and Rebecca Osman (my grandmother’s sister) settled in Southampton, with their son Jim Osman and daughter Chris who I mentioned earlier. Dad’s brother Edgar moved to Lyndhurst in the New Forest, and their elder son Roger joined the merchant marine spending some years as an engineer on the SS Canberra.

My cousin Roger Jackson and his bride Anne. That’s my bridesmaid cousin Caroline on the left, Roger’s younger sister.

On holidays in the New Forest around 1960, we paid a couple of visits to Southampton Docks, nostalgic visits for my Mum and Dad. In those days you could just wander around on the quayside, enter the Ocean Terminal and get up really close to the ships. Here are a few images of both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and other ships in port. The girl with my brother Ed and me is our older second cousin Anne Jewett.

There really was a majesty about these great ocean liners. The RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (launched 1967, but now enjoying retirement in Dubai) and the RMS Queen Mary 2 (launched 2003) carried on the graceful tradition and lines of their predecessors, and are worthy successors to their 1930s namesakes.

The cruise behemoths that now carry 4-5000 passengers at a time have, in my eyes, a fraction of the grace and glamour of the Queens, notwithstanding that they are wonders of modern maritime engineering and technology.

 

It’s not an accolade . . .

Call me a pedant? Ok. I accept the accusation. But only sometimes, and with good reason, however.

I confess. Incorrect use of English language and terminology does ‘get my goat’ from time-to-time.

ukTake media references for example that I’ve seen over recent days to ‘Great Britain’ in the context of the upcoming referendum on membership of the European Union or, in another instance, when referring to the treatment of Muslim immigrants in this country. Let me explain.

‘Great Britain’ is a geographical term. It refers to the largest island of the British Isles, and comprises England, Wales and Scotland and some offshore islands, but not the Channel Islands nor the Isle of Man. It was first officially used in 1474, but there are references to ‘Great Britain’ more than a thousand years earlier by the Greco-Egyptian scientist Claudius Ptolemy.

‘Great Britain’ is NOT an accolade. We may have the world’s fifth largest economy (as the Brexit campaigners are continually telling us), a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (but for how much longer?), and for better or worse (unfortunately for worse, in so many instances) this country has given a lot to the world. Not least the English language. Taking a long hard look at ourselves, we’re really rather an insignificant archipelago off the west coast of continental Europe.

But ‘Great’ has been employed recently, it seems to me, to describe a country that’s punching above its weight that we are special, above average. In other words, ‘great’. Humbug.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to British, a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I just wish that politicians would stop claiming how the country is best at this or that, as though we are trying to place ourselves at the top of some hypothetical ranking. In my book it never looks good if we use superlatives or claim accolades ourselves. Let others bestow those.

On his return from Brussels after negotiating a change to the UK’s membership of the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron was obviously confused (or maybe using the term merely for effect, if I’m being generous). ‘Let’s make Great Britain greater’, he implored. His speech writers clearly hadn’t got the message.

Then Scottish trawlerman from Peterhead, Jimmy Buchan, interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight a couple of nights ago was clearly mistaken. Complaining about EU interference in the fishing industry and the imposition of ‘unfair’ fishing quotas, he claimed a Brexit vote would permit our fisherman, unfettered by such regulations, to have a thriving industry once again (wishful thinking?), and make Great Britain great again.

And then this, just yesterday, in a report about reaction among immigrant Muslim women in the UK to ‘requirements’ that they should become fluent in English. ‘People from third world countries contributed to turning Britain into Great Britain . . . ‘ Undeniably, immigrants from all over have contributed to the well-being and growth of the UK. However, they haven’t made it ‘Great’; it was Great already. But they have made it better.

I just hope that the racist bigotry of some political parties and elements of others does not hold sway when we come to cast our ballots in the EU referendum on 23 June. We might end up as ‘Diminished Britain’.