Yes, we’ll meet on the other side . . .

Last night I heard the sad news—not totally unexpected—that my good friend and former colleague at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Professor Martin Mortimer had passed away, aged 71 [1], on 22 December after a short illness. Diagnosed with a brain tumour only in November, he knew he only had a short time left to him. From a note he sent round to friends and colleagues at the beginning of December, he faced his fate with equanimity but without pain, calmly reflecting on life and the joys that his family had brought him, ending his ‘ramblings’ that he would see us on the other side [2].

Yes, Martin, we will. Rest in Peace [3].

After studying at Bangor University (formerly University College of North Wales [4]), he joined the faculty of the University of Liverpool in 1975, remaining there for 44 years, although only part-time more recently.

After numerous organizational changes at the university, he became Head of the Department of Plant Science, and latterly Professor of Agricultural Ecology in the Institute of Integrative Biology. In this video, Martin describes the important role of the institute in understanding and developing sustainable food systems.

Martin was a plant population biologist, studying the application of agro-ecology in tropical and temperate agro-ecosystems, particularly as it related to weed management in rice and wheat systems.

It was as a weed biologist/ecologist that Martin joined IRRI (seconded from Liverpool) in 1996, and spent seven years at the institute, returning to his university post in 2002. But he remained connected with IRRI for many years afterwards, often spending a few weeks each year participating in weed research and helping to develop collaborations with institutes in South Asia. He published widely in his chosen field, and Dynamics of Weed Populations (with Roger Cousens of the Western Australia Department of Agriculture, and published by Cambridge University Press in 1995) was a significant contribution.

In this photo, Martin is describing aspects of his research on weed dynamics to members of IRRI’s Board of Trustees (BoT). Behind Martin’s right shoulder stands Ron Cantrell, Director General, and behind his left shoulder, Dr Rudy Rabbinge, Chair of the BoT.

Martin was particularly proud of his role in fostering collaboration between the University of Liverpool and two universities in the Philippines, to promote graduate studies leading to Masters and PhD degrees. In 2018 he welcomed a delegation from the Philippines to Liverpool.

My first contact with Martin actually came during his visit to IRRI at the end of 1995 when he was interviewed for the weed scientist position. Over three Christmases, a small group of us staged ‘traditional’ English pantomimes. In the 1995 production, based (very) loosely on the story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, I played a camp Prince John, presiding, in one act, over an archery contest. We had already decided to ‘invite’ a member of the audience on stage either to fire an arrow, or be the target. I don’t remember which. Knowing Martin was in the audience, we chose him and he entered into the spirit of the evening.

Martin and I became firm friends, and he would often dine with Steph and me. It was a particular delight if our other good friend John Sheehy joined us as well, or we dined at John’s and Martin was there also.

A splendid evening Chez Sheehy, with (L-R): Steph, Graham McLaren, Martin, Sue McLaren, and John.

Martin and John sharing a tall tale.

Martin learned to scuba dive while in the Philippines, and he and I were often dive buddies on the weekends we were at Arthur’s Place together. On another memorable occasion, Martin and his wife Sue joined a group of friends to scale Mt. Makiling, the 3500 ft dormant (extinct?) volcano that dominates the skyline over IRRI and Los Baños, on May Day 2000.

L: Sue and Martin Mortimer, and Graham McLaren. R: me, Steph, Sue, Graham and Sue McLaren.

I haven’t seen Martin for a number of years, although we kept in touch by email. I always referred to him as ‘Lord Fazakerley’ (because of his Liverpool connections, Fazakerley being a district in Liverpool), and him referring to me as ‘Lord Brum’ (because of my University of Birmingham connections). Only earlier this year we had been corresponding frequently as we drafted obituaries for our dear friend John Sheehy for publication in national newspapers. Little did we suspect that Martin’s life would be cruelly shortened so soon afterwards.

I thought I had already finished blogging for 2019. But I couldn’t let Martin’s sad passing go unrecognised. My thoughts are with his family: wife Sue and son Hugh, and step-daughter and -son, Andrea and Fergus and their families.


30 December
After I had published this tribute to Martin yesterday, my friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel (who was Head of the Communication and Publications Services) posted this short video on YouTube which brilliantly shows Martin’s sense of humour. In the video, Gene’s wife Aurora (who is from the Philippines) comments on Martin’s English accent. Enjoy!

8 January 2020
My friend and former colleague Gene Hettel posted this tribute to Martin on the IRRI website.


[1] Born on 7 January 1948, son of Dorothy Margaret and John Knowles Mortimer of Maidstone, Kent. Martin never knew his father, who died (of cancer) three months before Martin was born. Martin was brought up by his mother on a farm in Kent.

[2] Martin’s message to friends and colleagues was inspirational. The family have kindly given me permission to reproduce this excerpt, which illustrates Martin’s concern, as an evolutionary biologist, about the environment and humanity’s need to tackle head-on the challenge of climate change:

You will all know my attitude to climate change and the fact that I have been encouraging you all to address that major issue. As I die I see the rise of populism and selfishness as a major problem and it depresses me enormously, I genuinely think that the individual can do something about it. Lifestyles will have to change. And indeed the Mortimer lifestyle started to change (we moved house! ). My family bought into this and I would encourage yours to. 

[3] Martin’s funeral was held in Wrexham on 9 January 2020. Click on this link to view a copy of the Order of Service of Thanksgiving.

[4] BSc 1969 in Agricultural Botany; PhD 1972 in Plant Ecology (Studies of germination and establishment of selected species). After his PhD, Martin completed (1972-1975) a Lord Leverhulme post-doctoral fellowship at Bangor and the University of Wisconsin, studying the genetics of the Phytophtora group of plant pathogens.


 

Have [botany] degree . . . will travel (#iamabotanist)

One thing I had known from a young boy was that I wanted to see the world; and work overseas if possible. Following somewhat in the footsteps of my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson.

Who would have thought that a degree in botany would open up so many opportunities?

Come 1 January, it will be 47 years since I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and the start of a 37 year career in the plant sciences: as a researcher, teacher, and manager. Where has the time flown?

After eight years in South and Central America, I spent a decade on the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Then, in 1991, I headed to Southeast Asia, spending almost 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, before retiring in 2010.

However, I have to admit that Lady Luck has often been on my side, because my academic career didn’t get off to an auspicious start and almost thwarted my ambitions.

While I enjoyed my BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (in environmental botany and geography) I was frankly not a very talented nor particularly industrious student. I just didn’t know how to study, and always came up short in exams. And, on reflection, I guess I burnt the candle more at one end than the other.

It would hard to underestimate just how disappointed I was, in June 1970, to learn I’d been awarded a Lower Second Class (2ii) degree, not the Upper Second (2i) that I aspired to. I could have kicked myself. Why had I not applied myself better?

But redemption was on the horizon.

Prof. Jack Hawkes

In February 1970, Professor Jack Hawkes (head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham) interviewed me for a place on the MSc Course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, that had opened its doors to the first cohort some months earlier. I must have made a favorable impression, because he offered me a place for September.

But how was I to support myself for the one year course, and pay the tuition  fees? I didn’t have any private means and, in 1970, the Course had not yet been recognized for designated studentships by any of the UK’s research councils.

Through the summer months I was on tenterhooks, and with the end of August approaching, started seriously to think about finding a job instead.

Then salvation arrived in the form of a phone call from Professor Hawkes, that the university had awarded me a modest studentship to cover living expenses and accommodation (about £5 a week, or equivalent to about £66 in today’s money) as well as paying the tuition fees. I could hardly believe the good news.

Prof. Trevor Williams

By the middle of September I joined four other students (from Venezuela, Pakistan, Turkey, and Nigeria) to learn all about the importance of crop plant diversity. Over the next year, discovered my academic mojo. I completed my MSc dissertation on lentils under Course Tutor (and future Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, now Bioversity International), Professor Trevor Williams.

Starting a career in international agricultural research
Just before Christmas 1970, Hawkes traveled to Peru and Bolivia to collect wild potatoes. On his return in February 1971, he dangled the possibility of a one year position in Peru (somewhere I had always wanted to visit) to manage the potato germplasm collection at CIP while a Peruvian researcher came to Birmingham for training on the MSc Course. Then, in mid-summer, CIP’s Director General, Dr. Richard Sawyer, visited Birmingham and confirmed the position at CIP beginning in September 1971.

But things didn’t exactly go to plan. Funding from the British government’s overseas development aid budget to support my position at CIP didn’t materialise until January 1973. So, during the intervening 15 months, I began a PhD research project on potatoes (under the supervision of Professor Hawkes), continuing with that particular project as part of my overall duties once I’d joined CIP in Lima, under the co-supervision of Dr. Roger Rowe. That work took me all over the Andes—by road, on horseback, and on foot—collecting native varieties of potatoes for the CIP genebank.

Screening potatoes in Turrialba, Costa Rica for resistance to bacterial wilt.

After successfully completing my PhD in December 1975, I transferred to CIP’s Outreach Program in Central America, moved to Costa Rica for the next 4½ years, and began research on potato diseases, adaptation of potatoes to warm climates, and seed production. This was quite a change from my thesis research, but I acquired valuable experience about many different aspects of potato production. I learnt to grow a crop of potatoes!

But this posting was not just about research. After a year, my regional leader (based in Mexico) moved to the USA to pursue his PhD, and CIP asked me to take over as regional research leader. Thus I began to develop an interest in and (if I might be permitted to say) a flair for research management. In this role I traveled extensively throughout Central America and Mexico, and the Caribbean Islands, and helped to found and establish one of the most enduring and successful research partnerships between national research programs and any international agricultural research institute: PRECODEPA.

Then, just as I was thinking about a move to CIP’s regional office in the Philippines (for Southeast Asia), an entirely different opportunity opened up, and we moved back to the UK.

Back to Birmingham
In January 1981 I successfully applied for a Lectureship in my old department (now named the Department of Plant Biology) at Birmingham. I said goodbye to CIP in March 1981, and embarked on the next stage of my career: teaching botany.

The lectureship had been created to ensure continuity of teaching in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (and other topics) after Professor Hawkes’ retirement in September 1982. I assumed his particular teaching load, in crop plant evolution and germplasm collecting on the MSc Course, and flowering plant taxonomy to second year undergraduates, as well as developing other courses at both undergraduate and graduate level.

In addition to my continuing research interest on potatoes I assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species and one PhD student from Malaysia made an excellent study of species relationships of the one cultivated species, the grasspea, L. sativus. I successfully supervised (or co-supervised) the theses of nine other PhD students (and at least a couple of dozen MSc students) during the decade I spent at Birmingham.

I generally enjoyed the teaching and interaction with students more than research. Having struggled as an undergraduate myself, I think I could empathise with students who found themselves in the same boat, so-to-speak. I took my tutor/tutee responsibilities very seriously. In fact, I did and still believe that providing appropriate and timely tutorial advice to undergraduates was one of the more important roles I had. My door was always open for tutees to drop by, to discuss any issues in addition to the more formal meetings we had on a fortnightly basis when we’d discuss some work they had prepared for me, and I gave feedback.

While I appreciate that university staff are under increasing pressures to perform nowadays (more research, more grants, more papers) I just cannot accept that many consider their tutor responsibilities so relatively unimportant, assigning just an hour or so a week (or less) when they make themselves accessible by their tutees.

The 1980s were a turbulent time in the UK. Politics were dominated by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. And government policies came to significantly affect the higher education sector. By the end of the decade I was feeling rather disillusioned by university life, and although I was pretty confident of promotion to Senior Lecturer, I also knew that if any other opportunity came along, I would look at it seriously.

And in September 1990 just such an opportunity did come along, in the form of an announcement that IRRI was recruiting a head for the newly-created Genetic Resources Center.

Dr. Klaus Lampe

A return to international agriculture
It was early January 1991, and I was on a delayed flight to Hong Kong on my way to the Philippines for an interview. Arriving in Los Baños around 1 am (rather than 3 pm the previous afternoon), I had just a few hours sleep before a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr. Klaus Lampe and his two deputies. Severely jet-lagged, I guess I more or less sleep-walked through the next three days of interviews, as well as delivering a seminar. And the outcome? IRRI offered me the position at the end of January, and I moved to the Philippines on 1 July remaining there for almost 19 years.

For the first ten years, management of the International Rice Genebank (the world’s largest collection of rice varieties and wild species) was my main priority. I have written about many aspects of running a genebank in this blog, as well as discussing the dual roles of genebank management and scientific research. So I won’t repeat that here. Making sure the rice germplasm was safe and conserved in the genebank to the highest standards were the focus of my early efforts. We looked at better ways of growing diverse varieties in the single environment of IRRI’s Experiment Station, and overhauled the genebank data management system. We also spent time studying the diversity of rice varieties and wild species, eventually using a whole array of molecular markers and, in the process, establishing excellent collaboration with former colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.

Dr. Ron Cantrell

Then, one day in early 2001, IRRI’s Director General, Dr. Ron Cantrell, called me to his office, asking me to give up genebanking and join the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications. As I said earlier, I really enjoyed management, but wasn’t sure I wanted to leave research (and genetic resources) behind altogether. But after some serious soul-searching, I did move across in May 2001 and remained in that position until my retirement in April 2010.

Even in that position, my background and experience in the plant sciences was invaluable. All research project proposals for example passed through my office for review and submission to various donors for funding. I was able not only look at the feasibility of any given project in terms of its objectives and proposed outcomes within the project timeframe, I could comment on many of the specific scientific aspects and highlight any inconsistencies. Because we had a well-structured project proposal development and submission process, the quality of IRRI projects increased, as well as the number that were successfully supported. IRRI’s budget increased to new levels, and confidence in the institute’s research strategy and agenda gained increased confidence among its donors.

What a good decision I made all those years ago to study botany. I achieved that early ambition to travel all over the world (>60 countries in connection with my work) in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. But the study (and use) of plants gave me so much more. I used the knowledge and experience gained to help transform lives of some of the poorest farmers and their families, by contributing to efforts to grow better yielding crops, more resilient to climate change, and resistant to diseases.

I’m sure that a degree in botany would be the last in many people’s minds as leading to so many opportunities such as I enjoyed. Knowing that opportunities are out there is one thing. Seizing those opportunities is quite another. And I seized them with both hands. I never looked back.

I should also mention that I also ascribe some of my success to having had excellent mentors—many mentioned in this piece—throughout my career to whom I could turn for advice. Thank you!

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If you are interested, a list of my scientific output (papers, book, book chapters, conference presentations and the like) can be seen here.

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Edgar L. Jackson (1946-2019)

Ed at his retirement from the University of Alberta in 2007.

A couple of days ago, my elder brother Ed passed away, in Edmonton, Alberta, after a long illness. He was 73.

Born on 7 July 1946 (in Congleton, Cheshire in the northwest of England) he was the third child (of four) of Fred and Lilian Jackson, and christened Edgar Lionel, presumably ‘Edgar’ after our Dad’s younger brother Edgar, and ‘Lionel’ after Lionel Head, proprietor of The Congleton Chronicle where Dad was staff photographer.

Ed was just over two years older than me, but three academic years ahead. He and I were post-war ‘baby boomers’. Our eldest brother Martin was born in September 1939 (just three days before the outbreak of WWII), and our sister Margaret was born in January 1941.

Here we are in about 1951/52 and again in November 2006.

When I started school in 1953, Ed looked after me as we took the bus from the High Street in Congleton (not far from our home on Moody Street) a mile or so southeast of the town to attend the village school in Mossley. And we’d travel together every day until we moved from Congleton to Leek in April 1956.

Outside 13 Moody St. and a Mossley School photo, probably around 1955.

In Leek, our parents enrolled us in the local Roman Catholic primary school, St. Mary’s, just a short walk from where we lived (above our father’s photographic business) on St Edward Street. Together, we joined the Cub Scouts, 5th Leek – St Mary’s.

And we had one more thing we enjoyed together: playing skiffle.

And this image was used for a number of years (sadly no longer) on one of the exhibits at The Beatles Story museum in Liverpool.

This is our great-nephew Sammy in front of that exhibit several years back.

Later in 1956 or, more probably, September 1957, Ed won a scholarship to attend the Roman Catholic grammar school, St. Joseph’s College, in Trent Vale, on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent, a 28 mile round trip every day.

So, by 1957, our paths in life had already begun to diverge. I also attended St. Joseph’s College from September 1960, and by then, Ed was already headed towards his ‘O Level’ exams. In 1964 he’d applied to university and was accepted to study geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science (the LSE). His ‘A Level’ exam results for admission were not promising. He achieved a D grade in geography, E in Latin, and an ‘O Level’ pass in economics. Certainly no indication of what was to come.

However, in July 1967, he graduated with a First Class Honours BA degree in geography, apparently one of only two Firsts awarded that year in geography across the whole of the University of London! Comparing that with the situation today when, in some university departments, up to half the degrees awarded are Firsts, Ed’s achievement is especially remarkable.

Moving to Canada
Not having expected to accomplish so much academically, Ed took a job in marketing in London (with Unilever, I believe) after graduation but he soon realised he wanted to pursue graduate studies. He applied to study for a master’s degree at the University of Calgary in Canada. So, in August 1968, and having just married Christine (his first wife) they set off for a new life in Canada. Ed eventually became a Canadian citizen.

By 1972, he and Christine had separated and ultimately divorced. After completing his MA in Calgary, Ed transferred to the University of Toronto to study for a PhD, undertaking research on the west coast of North America (in California and Alaska) to evaluate population responses to earthquake hazards. He was awarded his PhD in 1974, and after a short spell teaching in Toronto, secured a permanent position in the Department of Geography at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1975, where he remained until retirement in 2007 as a Full Professor.

In Toronto he met Linda, and they married before moving west to Edmonton. They had three children together: Patrick, Nicholas, and Katherine.

Life at the university
As Graduate Chair in the Department of Geography for several years, he was a member of the committee which managed the merger with the Department of Geology to become the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences in 1995.

I recall that Ed—as a human geographer—was increasingly isolated in the merged department among geologists, atmospheric physicists, and the like. Human geographers were in short supply. His research ‘focused upon a variety of topics related to leisure and recreation, including the relationship between outdoor recreation participation and attitudes to the natural environment, satisfaction in outdoor recreation, and conflict. In the last twenty years of his appointment he concentrated largely on constraints to leisure participation and enjoyment, an area in which he published many journal articles, book chapters, and contract reports for the Alberta government.’

I hadn’t, however, appreciated just how highly regarded Ed was in his chosen field.

He was an Associate Editor of the Journal of Leisure Research from 1988 to 1995, Secretary of the Canadian Association for Leisure Studies (CALS) for two three-year terms (1987-1993), and President of CALS for 1996 to 1999. He received both the Allen V. Sapora Research Award and NRPA’s Roosevelt Research Award in 1995. He was elected to the Academy of Leisure Sciences in 1989 and was President of the Academy for 1995-1996.’

One of his most important contributions to the field of leisure research was the 2005 book Constraints to Leisure, which he edited.

Earlier today, I came across this appreciation, written by Peter A. Witt in the Journal of Leisure Research at the time, I believe, when Ed received the Roosevelt Award: ‘Ed Jackson is the leading figure in North America, and indeed the world, in promoting an understanding of constraints to recreation and leisure participation. Over the past 15 years, he has not only undertaken pioneering conceptualization and research in this area, but has also stimulated the research of others and helped set the agenda for future constraints research. No piece of research will be published any time soon that does not use Ed Jackson’s work as the foundation for its contribution. This assertion could only be made about the contributions of a few people from our field, most of whom have already received this award.’

Icelandic geography and jazz
Ed had two passions (apart from his family): Iceland and jazz.

At the end of his first year at university, Ed was one of the leaders of a 1965 student expedition from the LSE and King’s College London Joint School of Geography to Iceland. Over following decades he returned to Iceland on a number of occasions, making many friends there.

A panoramic view of Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland, where the 1965 expedition was based.

Ed put together this impressive collection of photos taken around Iceland.

Ed with Chris Barber after a concert in Bristol, UK in 2003.

Turning to jazz, Ed was an aficionado of the music of Duke Ellington, and I guess he must have had most if not all of his recordings. But I’ll remember Ed for the other jazz love in his life: the music of trombonist Chris Barber and his band. This was a passion that went back more than 50 years. Together with colleagues in the UK and Switzerland, Ed helped develop and curate the Chris Barber web site, although his participation as one of the web masters tailed off in recent years as illness incapacitated him*. Read, in Ed’s own words, about his involvement in that project, but why he became such a devotee of Chris Barber’s music.

Jazz is not my thing but Ed did introduce me to some of Chris Barber’s music, and one track in particular, on Elite Syncopations (originally released in 1960), became a firm favorite of mine.

I can think of no better way of remembering Ed than through listening to Chris Barber (double, triple or more tracking, and accompanied by Lonnie Donegan on banjo) playing Cole Smoak (composed by Clarence H. St John in 1906). Just click on the album cover to listen.

The last time I saw Ed was in November 2006 when he and Linda and their children came over to the UK for a ‘farewell visit’. Linda had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier that year. We met up at a reunion of cousins near Derby; I flew back from the Philippines for the event. What a wonderful evening we had. Sadly Linda passed away in mid-2007. It was not long after that Ed himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was the treatment that caused him so much distress and his slow decline over the next decade or more.

Ed and I had never been particularly close, apart from those early Mossley school and skiffle days in the 1950s. After he emigrated to Canada, we saw each other on just a handful of occasions. In July 1979, Steph and I (and 15 month-old Hannah) attended a conference in Vancouver, and then traveled by road to Edmonton, staying with Ed and Linda for a few days before traveling home to Costa Rica where we were living at the time. On another memorable Christmas in 1986, Ed and Linda, and young son Patrick, came over to the UK, and all the family got together at my sister’s house in Newport.

Christmas in Newport, South Wales in 1986. Standing, L-R: brother-in-law Trevor, Mum, Steph. Middle row, L-R: Linda, nephew Alex, brother Martin, nephew Bruce, sister Margaret. Front row, L-R: sister-in-law Pauline, Ed (holding Patrick), Mike, my daughters Philippa and Hannah.

In recent years I had seen, from various photos that Ed had posted online, just how the aftermath of cancer and surgery had ravaged his health. He was often in great pain. He’s now at peace.

Yesterday I contacted Patrick who replied: ‘My father had been suffering from a long list of medical conditions and complications for a long time. His health was in steep decline over more recent months. In retrospect, it seems as if he was preparing for this by getting various affairs in order over the last few months. It is my strong belief that he was ready for this, and wanted to be free from pain.’

I can’t finish this tribute to my brother without recounting an act of heroism by Ed more than 60 years ago. It was a fine summer Sunday afternoon, and Ed and I and some friends were enjoying ourselves on the banks of the River Churnet, about a mile from home in Leek. I fell in and, out of my depth and unable to swim, was in serious danger of drowning. Hearing the cries from friends who saw me slip, Ed sprinted along the river bank and dived—without hesitation—into the river, dragging me to safety.

Thanks, Ed. So long . . .

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* Andreas Wandfluh, Ed’s co-webmaster posted this tribute on the Chris Barber web site.

What I’ve been reading this year . . .

I started the year where I left off in 2018: continuing with (and enjoying) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace [1]. I finished that around the second week of January then dived straight into his Anna Karenina [2].

I guess I started War and Peace (first published in a single volume in 1869, although it had been serialized between 1865 and 1867) because I had this feeling that it’s one of the books that I (at the age of 70) should have dipped into by now. In 2016, at the beginning of the year just as I broke my leg and was laid up for the next six weeks, the BBC broadcast an adaptation of War and Peace in six parts that Steph and I thoroughly enjoyed. It was certainly a lavish production. And quite a feat to condense such a large book into six hours.

War and Peace is quite a marathon, and it must have taken me almost seven weeks to complete. What I liked was Tolstoy’s contrast between the privileged lives of the nobility—Society—and the horrors of war brought to nations through the expansionist policies of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Having completed the book, we decided to revisit the TV series (fortunately available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer). Inevitably I found myself comparing the portrayal of the various characters on screen with those that had formed in my mind. Perhaps the closest was that by Jim Broadbent as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, and to some extent, the weakest was Paul Dano as Count Pierre Bezukhov. Jack Lowden as Count Nikolai Rostov came across as a rather more callous individual than he appeared in the book.

Anna Karenina must have been regarded as quite racy when first published in 1878 (but serialized between 1873 and 1877) with themes of betrayal, faith, family, marriage, Imperial Russian society, desire, and rural vs. city life. The central plot is an adulterous affair between Anna (unhappy wife of a Russian bureaucrat in St Petersburg) and a cavalry officer, Count Alexei Vronsky.

One theme that recurs is the societal changes taking place in rural Russia, and the expansion of the railways. Suicide by railway is how Anna meets her unhappy end.

One small aspect that recurs throughout the novel is Tolstoy’s admiration for women’s bosoms. He seems quite obsessed by them considering his vivid descriptions.

Keeping with the Russian theme, I then moved on to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [3].

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (published in 1962) is quite short, a novella in fact like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (that I read in 2018). My first impressions were not promising. It’s just one long prose, no chapters. It’s one day in the life.

I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It’s a tale of survival told through the eyes of gulag prisoner Ivan Denisovich (and must have been autobiographical to some extent on Solzhenitsyn’s part). All the while I was reading Ivan Denisovich, I couldn’t help thinking about the prison sentence endured by one of my scientific heroes, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, one of the giants of genetics and agriculture of the 20th century. He fell out of favor with Stalin was imprisoned and died there in 1943.

It took me a week to read Ivan Denisovich. What next? More Russian authors or someone else? I decided on Russian, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was able to purchase his 15 novels for my Kindle. But which one to begin with? It had to be Crime and Punishment, concentrating on the mental anguish and moral dilemma faced by the main protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

March. New month, a new book. I decided to go back to my North Staffordshire roots, and explore Arnold Bennett once again. I’m pretty sure I already read Anna of the Five Towns some time in the past, but I can’t remember when, nor the plot. So it was like opening the book for the first time. As with much of Bennett’s writing, there’s a focus on the strong Methodism in late 19th century Stoke-on-Trent.

Then I moved on to The Old Wives’ Tale, considered by many to be Bennett’s finest novel. Then, to complete a Bennett trilogy, I quickly devoured The Card, a delightful tale of Five Towns’ ambitions, and made into a memorable film starring Alec Guinness as Denry Machin in 1952.

Jane Austen is always a favorite of mine; I’ve read all her novels. A year ago I tried to return to Emma, but somehow, I just couldn’t settle to it. This time round, however, I persevered and thoroughly enjoyed my reacquaintance. I have become so accustomed to reading on my Kindle, that I find the small print in some books (as was the case with my Signet Classic edition of Emma) rather hard to handle, especially in the evening when my eyes are tired. With the Kindle I can at least change the font size.

Early April. Return to Dostoyevsky, and perhaps his most famous novel The Brothers Karamazov [5]. I got about two thirds of the way through, and just couldn’t take any more. Page after page of philosophical navel gazing. I very seldom give up on a book. In fact, over the past nine years I can only remember having done this once before – a biography of William Pitt the Elder that I started in 2012.

Over the Easter weekend (and in preparation for visiting his family home in Kent, three weeks later) I decided to re-read to The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

But I didn’t get very far at all. It’s a very hard read. Not the content, I hasten to add. That’s all very familiar to me. No, it’s Darwin’s writing style. Very Victorian. And the copy I have has such small typeface that I had to put the book aside with the hope that I might return to it later in the year.

And there I stopped reading for a month, until I decided to give Rudyard Kipling a try out, so to speak. During our week away in East Sussex and Kent, we spent an enjoyable morning at Kipling’s home, Bateman’s.

And that’s when I chose Kim as my next challenge, followed up a month later by The Man Who Would Be King (a short story in The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales).

Kim. What a strange book. Not as easy as I thought it would be. Just as it was getting going, and I expected to read all about Kim’s exploits as a spy, it ended.

Given that The Man Who Would Be King was made into a feature film directed by John Huston, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, no less, I was surprised to discover that it was only a short story, rather inconsequential. Kipling himself has a cameo role as a burgeoning newspaperman.

But, having worked my way through, and it having coming to an abrupt end, I opted for another Arnold Bennett tale as my next challenge. The Grand Babylon Hotel seemed to me a rather poor imitation of an Agatha Christie novel. Way before Christie was writing. The plot was weak and ludicrous, to say the least. And although it was a diversion for the five or so days for me to work through it, I found the next four Bennett novels much meatier and to my taste. It was back to The Potteries with Clayhanger, a ‘trilogy’ plus one: Clayhanger (a boy’s tale from the Five Towns), Hilda Lessways and These Twain, followed by Roll Call by mid-August.

Then it was Kipling once again – Plain Tales from the Hills, a collection of 40 short stories, 28 of which first appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette between November 1886 and June 1887. These took me about a week to devour.

I’m not sure if I’d already read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. We have a copy in the house. But I decided to download a copy on to my Kindle, and delved into it from late-August. It must count as one of the great social novels of the 19th century.

While in the USA in September, I bought a secondhand copy (for <$10) of the coffee table book, The Untold Civil War, published by National Geographic. Each page is a different story, liberally illustrated with contemporary photographs and cartoons. An excellent read and resource.

Just before departing for the USA, I finished North and South, and started George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, first published in 1860. But somehow, while away, always found something else to keep me occupied than settling to this novel. I was busy sorting and editing over 1000 images I’d taken during our road trip before traveling on to Minnesota. I’d only read a few pages, so on return home, I started from the beginning again. But didn’t get very far.

During the first part of October, I couldn’t settle to reading. First I was seriously jet-lagged and it took me longer to recover than after past trips. Then I went down with a nasty cold that laid me low for almost a fortnight. And during this period I just lost interest in Mill on the Floss.

At the beginning of November I decided I had to find something to read. So I returned to Arnold Bennett and his collection of short stories, The Matador of the Five Towns and Other Stories. I lost count of how many there were; it must have been 20-30. Most were excellent, and often quite humorous. Reading just a few pages a day, it took me almost a month to work through these.

And here we are, on 1 December, and I have just decided to tackle Middlemarch by George Eliot. Published in 1871-72, it’s regarded as her finest, a tale of love, life, and politics set in a fictitious Midlands town in the 1830s, and currently being serialised on BBC Radio 4. No doubt this will take me the whole month to devour, and probably into January. But I’m determined to persevere with George Eliot this time.

That’s it for 2019. Which book(s) did I enjoy most? On reflection, I think I’d have to choose Clayhanger.

I wonder what literary treats 2020 has in store?


[1] Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

[2] Translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude

[3] Translation by Gillon Aitken

[4] Translation by Constance Garnett

[5] Translated by Constance Garnett.