Potatoes or rice?

I graduated in July 1970 from the University of Southampton (a university on England’s south coast) with a BSc Hons degree in botany and geography. ‘Environmental botany’ actually, whatever that meant. The powers that be changed the degree title half way through my final (i.e. senior) year.

Anyway, there I was with my degree, and not sure what the future held in store. It was however the beginning of a fruitful 40 year career in international agricultural research and academia at three institutions over three continents, in a number of roles: research scientist, principal investigator (PI), program leader, teacher, and senior research manager, working primarily on potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa), with diversions into some legume species such as the grasspea, an edible form of Lathyrus.

Potatoes on the lower slopes of the Irazu volcano in Costa Rica, and rice in Bhutan

I spent the 1970s in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), the 1980s at the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences (Plant Biology), and almost 19 years from July 1991 (until my retirement on 30 April 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines¹.

I divided my research time during those 40 years more or less equally between potatoes and rice (not counting the legume ‘diversions’), and over a range of disciplines: biosystematics and pre-breeding, genetic conservation, crop agronomy and production, plant pathology, plant breeding, and biotechnology. I was a bit of a ‘jack-of-all-trades’, getting involved when and where needs must.

However, I haven’t been a ‘hands-on’ researcher since the late 1970s. At both Birmingham and IRRI, I had active research teams, with some working towards their MSc or PhD, others as full time researchers. You can see our research output over many years in this list of publications.

Richard Sawyer

Very early on in my career I became involved in research management at one level or another. Having completed my PhD at Birmingham in December 1975 (and just turned 27), CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program in Costa Rica. I moved there in April 1976 and stayed there until November 1980.


In these Covid-19 lockdown days, I’m having ample time to reflect on times past. And today, 30 April, it’s exactly 10 years since I retired.

Just recently there was a Twitter exchange between some of my friends about the focus of their research, and the species they had most enjoyed working on.

And that got me thinking. If I had to choose between potatoes and rice, which one would it be? A hard decision. Even harder, perhaps, is the role I most enjoyed (or gave me the most satisfaction) or, from another perspective, in which I felt I’d accomplished most. I’m not even going to hazard a comparison between living and working in Peru (and Costa Rica) versus the Philippines. However, Peru has the majesty of its mountain landscapes and its incredible cultural history and archaeological record (notwithstanding I’d had an ambition from a small boy to visit Peru one day). Costa Rica has its incredible natural world, a real biodiversity hotspot, especially for the brilliant bird life. And the Philippines I’ll always remember for all wonderful, smiling faces of hard-working Filipinos.

And the scuba diving, of course.

Anyway, back to potatoes and rice. Both are vitally important for world food security. The potato is, by far, the world’s most important ‘root’ crop (it’s actually a tuber, a modified underground stem), by tonnage at least, and grown worldwide. Rice is the world’s most important crop. Period! Most rice is grown and consumed in Asia. It feeds more people on a daily basis, half the world’s population, than any other staple. Nothing comes close, except wheat or maize perhaps, but much of those grains is processed into other products (bread and pasta) or fed to animals. Rice is consumed directly as the grain.


Just 24 when I joined CIP as a taxonomist in January 1973, one of my main responsibilities was to collect potato varieties in various parts of the Peruvian Andes to add to the growing germplasm collection of native varieties and wild species. I made three trips during my three years in Peru: in May 1973 to the departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague, Zósimo Huamán); in May 1974 to Cajamarca (accompanied by my driver Octavio); and in January/February 1974 to Cuyo-Cuyo in Puno and near Cuzco, with University of St Andrews lecturer, Dr Peter Gibbs.

Top: with Octavio in Cajamarca, checking potato varieties with a farmer. Bottom: ready for the field, near Cuzco.

My own biosystematics/pre-breeding PhD research on potatoes looked at the breeding relationships between cultivated forms with different chromosome numbers (multiples of 12) that don’t naturally intercross freely, as well as diversity within one form with 36 chromosomes, Solanum x chaucha. In the image below, some of that diversity is shown, as well as examples of how we made crosses (pollinations) between different varieties, using the so-called ‘cut stem method’ in bottles.

Several PhD students of mine at Birmingham studied resistance to pests and diseases in the myriad of more than 100 wild species of potato that are found from the southern USA to southern Chile. We even looked at the possibility of protoplast fusion (essentially fusion of ‘naked’ cells) between different species, but not successfully.

I developed a range of biosystematics projects when taking over leadership of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, publishing extensively about the relationships among the handful (about 20 or so) wild rice species and cultivated rice. One of the genebank staff, Elizabeth Ma. ‘Yvette’ Naredo (pointing in the image below) completed her MS degree under my supervision.

Although this research had a ‘taxonomic’ focus in one sense (figuring out the limits of species to one another), it also had the practical focus of demonstrating how easily species might be used in plant breeding, according to their breeding relationships, based on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet, 1971 [1], illustrated diagrammatically below.


When I transferred to Costa Rica in 1976, I was asked to look into the possibility of growing potatoes under hot, humid conditions. At that time CIP was looking to expand potato production into areas and regions not normally associated with potato cultivation. One of the things I did learn was how to grow a crop of potatoes.

I was based in Turrialba (at the regional institute CATIE), at around 650 masl, with an average temperature of around 23°C (as high as 30°C and never much lower than about 15°C; annual rainfall averages more than 2800 mm). Although we did identify several varieties that could thrive under these conditions, particularly during the cooler months of the year, we actually faced a more insidious problem, and one that kept me busy throughout my time in Costa Rica.

Shortly after we planted the first field trials on CATIE’s experiment station, we noticed that some plants were showing signs of wilting but we didn’t know the cause.

With my research assistant Jorge Aguilar checking on wilted plants in one of the field trials.

Luis Carlos González

Fortunately, I established a very good relationship with Dr Luis Carlos González Umaña, a plant pathologist in the University of Costa Rica, who quickly identified the culprit: a bacterium then known as Pseudomonas solanacearum (now Ralstonia solanacearum) that causes the disease known as bacterial wilt.

I spent over three years looking into several ways of controlling bacterial wilt that affects potato production in many parts of the world. An account of that work was one of the first posts I published in this blog way back in 2012.

The other aspect of potato production which gave me great satisfaction is the work that my colleague and dear friend Jim Bryan and I did on rapid multiplication systems for seed potatoes.

Being a vegetatively-propagated crop, potatoes are affected by many diseases. Beginning with healthy stock is essential. The multiplication rate with potatoes is low compared to crops that reproduce through seeds, like rice and wheat. In order to bulk up varieties quickly, we developed a set of multiplication techniques that have revolutionised potato seed production systems ever since around the world.

AS CIP’s Regional Representative for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean (known as CIP’s Region II), I also contributed to various potato production training courses held each year in Mexico. But one of our signature achievements was the launch of a six nation research network or consortium in 1978, known as PRECODEPA (Programa REgional COoperativo DE PApa), one of the first among the CGIAR centers. It was funded by the Swiss Government.

Shortly after I left Costa Rica in November 1980, heading back to Lima (and unsure where my next posting would be) PRECODEPA was well-established, and leadership was assumed by the head of one of the national potato program members of the network. PRECODEPA expanded to include more countries in the region (in Spanish, French, and English), and was supported continually by the Swiss for more than 25 years. I have written here about how PRECODEPA was founded and what it achieved in the early years.

I resigned from CIP in March 1981 and returned to the UK, spending a decade teaching at the University of Birmingham.


Did I enjoy my time at Birmingham? I have mixed feelings.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, and took on several administrative roles, becoming Chair of the Biological Sciences Second Year Common Course (to which I contributed a module of about six lectures on agricultural ecosystems). I had no first teaching commitments whatsoever, thank goodness. I taught a second year module with my colleague Richard Lester on flowering plant taxonomy, contributing lectures about understanding species relationships through experimentation.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

With my close friend and colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd (later Professor), I taught a final year module on plant genetic resources, the most enjoyable component of my undergraduate teaching.

One aspect of my undergraduate responsibilities that I really did enjoy (and took seriously, I believe—and recently confirmed by a former tutee!) was the role of personal tutor to 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students. I would meet with them about once a week to discuss their work, give advice, set assignments, and generally be a sounding board for any issues they wanted to raise with me. My door was always open.

Most of my teaching—on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm collecting, agricultural systems, among others—was a contribution to the one year (and international) MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources on which I had studied a decade earlier. In my travels around the world after I joined IRRI in 1991, I would often bump into my former students, and several also contributed to a major rice biodiversity project that I managed for five years from 1995. I’m still in contact with some of those students, some of whom have found me through this blog. And I’m still in contact with two of my classmates from 1970-71.

Research on potatoes during the 1980s at Birmingham was not straightforward. On the one hand I would have liked to continue the work on wild species that had been the focus of Professor Jack Hawkes’ research over many decades.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima in early 1981 just before I left CIP to return to the UK. This was the only time I collected with Hawkes. What knowledge he had!

He had built up an important collection of wild species that he collected throughout the Americas. I was unable to attract much funding to support any research projects. It wasn’t a research council priority. Furthermore, there were restrictions on how we could grow these species, because of strict quarantine regulations. In the end I decided that the Hawkes Collection would be better housed in Scotland at the Commonwealth Potato Collection (or CPC, that had been set up after the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition in 1938-39 in which Jack participated). In 1987, the Hawkes Collection was acquired by the CPC and remains there to this day.

Dave Downing was the department technician who looked after the potato collection at Birmingham. He did a great job coaxing many different species to flower.

Having said that, one MSc student, Susan Juned, investigated morphological and enzyme diversity in the wild species Solanum chacoense. After graduating Susan joined another project on potato somaclones that was managed by myself and Brian Ford-Lloyd (see below). Another student, Ian Gubb, continued our work on the lack of enzymic blackening in Solanum hjertingii, a species from Mexico, in collaboration with the Food Research Institute in Norwich, where he grew his research materials under special quarantine licence. A couple of Peruvian students completed their degrees while working at CIP, so I had the opportunity of visiting CIP a couple of times while each was doing field work, and renew my contacts with former colleagues. In 1988, I was asked by CIP to join a panel for a three week review of a major seed production project at several locations around Peru.

With funding of the UK’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA, or whatever it was then), and now the Department for International Development (DFID), and in collaboration with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) in Cambridge and CIP, in 1983/84 we began an ambitious (and ultimately unsuccessful) project on true potato seed (TPS) using single seed descent (SSD) in diploid potatoes (having 24 chromosomes). Because of the potato quarantine situation at Birmingham, we established this TPS project at PBI, and over the first three years made sufficient progress for ODA to renew our grant for a second three year period.

We hit two snags, one biological, the other administrative/financial that led to us closing the project after five years. On reflection I also regret hiring the researcher we did. I’ve not had the same recruitment problem since.

Working with diploid potatoes was always going to be a challenge. They are self incompatible, meaning that the pollen from a flower ‘cannot’ fertilize the same flower. Nowadays mutant forms have been developed that overcome this incompatibility and it would be possible to undertake SSD as we envisaged. Eventually we hit a biological brick wall, and we decided the effort to pursue our goal would take more resources than we could muster. In addition, the PBI was privatized in 1987 and we had to relocate the project to Birmingham (another reason for handing over the Hawkes Collection to the CPC). We lost valuable research impetus in that move, building new facilities and the like. I think it was the right decision to pull the plug when we did, admit our lack of success, and move on.

We wrote about the philosophy and aims of this TPS project in 1984 [2], but I don’t have a copy of that publication. Later, in 1987, I wrote this review of TPS breeding [3].

Susan Juned

As I mentioned above, Brian Ford-Lloyd and I received a commercial grant to look into producing tissue-culture induced variants, or somaclones, of the crisping potato variety Record with reduced low temperature sweetening that leads to ‘blackened’ crisps (or chips in the USA) on frying. We hired Susan Juned as the researcher, and she eventually received her PhD in 1994 for this work. Since we kept the identity of each separate Record tuber from the outset of the project, over 150 tubers, and all the somaclone lines derived from each, we also showed that there were consequences for potato seed production and maintenance of healthy stocks as tissue cultures. We published that work in 1991. We also produced a few promising lines of Record for our commercial sponsor.

One funny aspect to this project is that we made it on to Page 3 of the tabloid newspaper The Sun, notorious in those days for a daily image of a well-endowed and naked young lady. Some journalist or other picked up a short research note in a university bulletin, and published an extremely short paragraph at the bottom of Page 3 (Crunch time for boffins) as if our project did not have a serious objective. In fact, I was even invited to go on the BBC breakfast show before I explained that the project had a serious objective. We weren’t just investigating ‘black bits in crisp packets’.

Brian and I (with a colleague, Martin Parry, in the Department of Geography) organized a workshop on climate change in 1989, when there was still a great deal of skepticism. We published a book in 1990 from that meeting (and followed up in 2013 with another).

Despite some successes while at Birmingham, and about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had started to become disillusioned with academic life by the end of the 1980s, and began to look for new opportunities. That’s when I heard about a new position at IRRI in the Philippines: Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center, with responsibility for the world renowned and largest international rice genebank. I applied. The rest is history,


Klaus Lampe

I was appointed by Director General Klaus Lampe even though I’d never actually run a genebank before. Taking on a genebank as prestigious as the International Rice Genebank was rather daunting. But help was on the way.

I knew I had a good team of staff. All they needed was better direction to run a genebank efficiently, and bring the genebank’s operations up to a higher standard.

Staff of the International Rice Genebank on a visit to PhilRice in 1996.

There was hardly an aspect of the operations that we didn’t overhaul. Not that I had the genebank team on my side from the outset. It took a few months for them to appreciate that my vision for the genebank was viable. Once on board, they took ownership of and responsibility for the individual operations while I kept an overview of the genebank’s operation as a whole.

With Pola de Guzman inside the Active Collection store room at +4C. Pola was my right hand in the genebank, and I asked her to take on the role of genebank manager, a position she holds to this day.

I’ve written extensively in this blog about the genebank and genetic resources of rice, and in this post I gave an overview of what we achieved.

You can find more detailed stories of the issues we faced with data management and germplasm characterization, or seed conservation and regeneration (in collaboration with my good friend Professor Richard Ellis of the University of Reading). We also set about making sure that germplasm from around Asia (and Africa and the Americas) was safe in genebanks and duplicated in the International Rice Genebank. We embarked on an ambitious five year project (funded by the Swiss government) to collect rice varieties mainly (and some wild samples as well), thereby increasing the size of the genebank collection by more than 25% to around 100,000 samples or accessions. The work in Laos was particularly productive.

My colleague, Dr Seepana Appa Rao (left) and Lao colleagues interviewing a farmer in Khammouane Province about the rice varieties she was growing.

We did a lot of training in data management and germplasm collecting, and successfully studied how farmers manage rice varieties (for in situ or on farm conservation) in the Philippines, Vietnam, and India.

One of IRRI’s main donors is the UK government through DFID. In the early 1990s, not long after I joined IRRI, DFID launched a new initiative known as ‘Holdback’ through which some of the funding that would, under normal circumstances, have gone directly to IRRI and its sister CGIAR centers was held back to encourage collaboration between dneters and scientists in the UK.

Whenever I returned on annual home leave, I would spend some time in the lab at Birmingham. John Newbury is on the far left, Parminder Virk is third from left, and Brian Ford-Lloyd on the right (next to me). One of my GRC staff, the late Amy Juliano spent a couple of months at Birmingham learning new molecular techniques. She is on the front row, fourth from right.

With my former colleagues at the University of Birmingham (Brian Ford-Lloyd, Dr John  Newbury, and Dr Parminder Virk) and a group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich (the late Professor Mike Gale and Dr Glenn Bryan) we set about investigating how molecular markers (somewhat in their infancy back in the day) could be used describe diversity in the rice collection or identify duplicate accessions.

Not only was this successful, but we published some of the first research in plants showing the predictive value of molecular markers for quantitative traits. Dismissed at the time by some in the scientific community, the study of  associations between molecular markers and traits is now mainstream.

In January 1993, I was elected Chair while attending my first meeting of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR) in Ethiopia (my first foray into Africa), a forum bringing expertise in genetic conservation together among the CGIAR centers.

ICWG-GR meeting held at ILCA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in January 1993.

Over the next three years while I was Chair, the ICWG-GR managed a review of genetic resources in the CGIAR, and a review of center genebanks. We also set up the System-Wide Genetic Resources Program, that has now become the Genebank Platform.


I never expected to remain at IRRI as long as I did, almost nineteen years. I thought maybe ten years at most, and towards the end of the 1990s I began to look around for other opportunities.

Then, in early 2001, my career took another course, and I left genetic resources behind, so to speak, and moved into senior management at IRRI as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (later Communications, DPPC). And I stayed in that role until retiring from the institute ten years ago.

Top: after our Christmas lunch together at Antonio’s restaurant in Tagaytay, one of the best in the Philippines. To my left are: Sol, Eric, Corints, Vel, and Zeny. Below: this was my last day at IRRI, with Eric, Zeny, Corints, Vel, and Yeyet (who replaced Sol in 2008).

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to beef up IRRI’s resource mobilization and project management. IRRI’s reputation with its donors had slipped. It wasn’t reporting adequately, or on time, on the various projects funded at the institute. Furthermore, management was not sure just what projects were being funded, by which donor, for what period, and what commitments had been set at the beginning of each. What an indictment!

I wrote about how DPPC came into being in this blog post. One of the first tasks was to align information about projects across the institute, particularly with the Finance Office. It wasn’t rocket science. We just gave every project (from concept paper to completion) a unique ID that had to be used by everyone. We also developed a corporate brand for our project reporting so that any donor could immediately recognise a report from IRRI.

So we set about developing a comprehensive project management system, restoring IRRI’s reputation in less than a year, and helping to increase the annual budget to around US$60 million. We also took on a role in risk management, performance appraisal, and the development of IRRI’s Medium Term Plans and its Strategy.

Bob Zeigler

Then under Ron’s successor, Bob Zeigler, DPPC went from strength to strength. Looking back on it, I think those nine years in DPPC were the most productive and satisfying of my whole career. In that senior management role I’d finally found my niche. There’s no doubt that the success of DPPC was due to the great team I brought together, particularly Corinta who I plucked out of the research program where she was working as a soil chemist.

Around 2005, after Bob became the DG, I also took on line management responsibility for a number of support units: Communication and Publications Services (CPS), Library and Documentation Services (LDS), Information Technology Service (ITS), and the Development Office (DO). Corinta took over day-to-day management of IRRI’s project portfolio.

With my unit heads, L-R: Gene Hettel (CPS), Mila Ramos (LDS), Marco van den Berg (ITS), Duncan Macintosh (DO), and Corinta Guerta (DPPC).


So, ten years on, what memories I have to keep my mind ticking over during these quiet days. When I began this post (which has turned out much longer than I ever anticipated) my aim was to decide between potatoes and rice. Having worked my way through forty years of wonderful experiences, I find I cannot choose one over the other. There’s no doubt however that I made a greater contribution to research and development during my rice days.

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking about my South American potato days with great affection, and knowing that, given the chance, I’d be back up in the Andes at a moment’s notice. Potatoes are part of me, in a way that rice never became.

Farmer varieties of potatoes commonly found throughout the Andes of Peru.


Everyone needs good mentors. I hope I was a good mentor to the folks who worked with me. I was fortunate to have had great mentors. I’ve already mentioned a number of the people who had an influence on my career.

I can’t finish this overview of my forty years in international agriculture and academia without mentioning five others: Joe Smartt (University of Southampton); Trevor Williams (University of Birmingham); Roger Rowe (CIP); John Niederhauser (1990 World Food Prize Laureate); and Ken Brown (CIP)

L-R: Joe Smartt, Trevor Williams, Roger Rowe, and John Niederhauser.

  • Joe, a lecturer in genetics, encouraged me to apply for the MSc Course at Birmingham in early 1970. I guess without his encouragement (and Jack Hawkes accepting me on to the course) I never would have embarked on a career in genetic conservation and international agriculture. I kept in regular touch with Joe until he passed away in 2013.
  • At Birmingham, Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils. He was an inspirational teacher who went on to become the Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome. The last time I spoke with Trevor was in 2012 when he phoned me one evening to congratulate me on being awarded an OBE. He passed away in 2015.
  • Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Breeding and Genetics Department, from the USDA Potato Collection in Wisconsin. He was my first boss in the CGIAR, and I learnt a lot from him about research and project management. We are still in touch.
  • John was an eminent plant pathologist whose work on late blight of potatoes in Mexico led to important discoveries about the pathogen and the nature of resistance in wild potato species. John and I worked closely from 1978 to set up PRECODEPA. He had one of the sharpest (and wittiest) minds I’ve come across. John passed away in 2005.
  • Ken Brown

    Ken was a fantastic person to work with—he knew just how to manage people, was very supportive, and the last thing he ever tried to do was micromanage other people’s work. I learnt a great deal about program and people management from him.


[1] Harlan, JR and JMJ de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20, 509-517.

[2] Jackson, MT. L Taylor and AJ Thomson 1985. Inbreeding and true potato seed production. In: Report of a Planning Conference on Innovative Methods for Propagating Potatoes, held at Lima, Peru, December 10-14,1984, pp. 169-79.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1987. Breeding strategies for true potato seed. In: GJ Jellis & DE Richardson (eds), The Production of New Potato Varieties: Technological Advances. Cambridge University Press, pp. 248-261.


 

Reliving some of our best USA visits

2020 was meant to be a positive year of change. In early January we placed our house in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire on the market, with the hope (expectation?) of a quick sale. Instead, it’s a year on hold.

By the end of 2019 we had already decided (after pondering this decision for a couple of years or more) to leave the Midlands and move north to the Newcastle upon Tyne area, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family: husband Andi, and sons Elvis (8) and Felix (6).

Steph and I are not getting any younger (70 and 71, respectively) and we decided that if we were going to make a move, we’d better get on with it while we had the enthusiasm, and continuing good health. Newcastle is almost 250 miles from where we currently live.

Back in January we thought we might be in Newcastle by mid-year, early autumn at the latest. That was before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. We are now in lockdown, and will be for the foreseeable future. Heaven knows when we might eventually push through with a sale.

So, with the expectation of this house move, we had already decided not to make our ‘annual’ visit to the USA (and road trip as in past years) to stay with our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota: husband Michael, Callum (9) and Zoë (7). Instead, they had decided to join us all in the Newcastle area for a two week vacation from early August. That’s also on hold until conditions improve and is unlikely now until 2021.

Since retirement in 2010, Steph and I have been making these US visits, and taking another holiday here in the UK, such as to Scotland in 2015, Northern Ireland in 2017, Cornwall in 2018, and East Sussex and Kent last year. As followers of this blog will know, Steph and I are avid members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. Alas, those day trips are also on hold.

Anyway, to cheer myself in the absence of any holiday breaks this year, I decided to look through the various blog posts I have published about many of the places we have visited in the USA—shown on the map below—and then give you my top five choices. As you can see from the map, there are several regions of the USA that we’ve not yet explored: Colorado, Utah and Idaho, southern Midwest, and southern states.

The dark red symbols indicate various national parks or other landscapes we have visited. Each has a link to the relevant blog post. The green symbols show cities where I have spent some days over the years.

It’s very hard to make a choice of my top five. But here they are, in no particular order (the links below open photo albums):

Having said that, Canyon de Chelly really is my No. 1, and I would return there tomorrow given half a chance. So why not include the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone in my top five? They would certainly be in the top 10.

We have been so fortunate to have had such great opportunities to travel around the USA. And we look forward to many more, filling in some of the gaps as we go.

I hope you enjoy looking at these road trip sites as much as we did visiting them over the past decade.


 

Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Joseph de Maistre)

Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre (1 April 1753 – 26 February 1821)

Do we get the government we deserve? Or even the politicians? What do we deserve?

Surely not the dangerous, incompetent, and frankly moronic governments that are in charge in both the United Kingdom and the United States. However, the UK does have one thing in its favor. It doesn’t have Donald J Trump, thank goodness. But that’s not saying much.

We have Boris Johnson—BoJo the Clown—along with a gamut of lacklustre Cabinet ministers who don’t seem to know their backsides from their elbows. It’s almost stretching credulity that in these difficult Covid-19 days there is a dearth of able leadership in both countries.

To give BoJo his due, he has been off work for a few weeks recovering from the virus. But from many accounts that have been making the rounds in the media, he wasn’t exactly on top of things before the pandemic took hold. Successive governments took their eye off the ball, even when advised that a pandemic was long overdue.

I blame David Cameron in the first instance. Coming to power after the May 2010 General Election, he (with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne) embraced economic austerity with enthusiasm. Years of Brexit dysfunction followed. Now, all of a sudden, when faced with an unprecedented economic fallout from the pandemic, the Johnson government has found eye-watering amounts of financial support to keep the economy afloat, sums that the Conservatives consistently said the country never had nor could afford. Not that I’m knocking the economic measures that have been taken. Far from it. People have to live. Have to survive.

But in that decade of austerity, what suffered? The National Health Service (NHS) suffered, starved of funds, starved of staff. The very NHS that government ministers are now queueing up (hypocritically) to praise and support. Ah, words are so easy to come by.

I know it’s important to have clear, concise messages to guide the behavior of the public at large. So, the government’s slogan (at right) achieves that goal. But, in some respects, hollow words. Trotted out, almost by rote, during every daily ministerial briefing. Protect the NHS? Something that these past Tory governments have not done.

Utter dysfunctionality is how I would describe the situation in the USA. With a narcissistic, egotistical moron at the head of government, who does not have the great (bigly even) intellect he professes to have, frankly it’s no wonder that the economically most powerful country on the planet is suffering from the virus like no other. Trump’s leadership is inept, dangerous even. His press conferences have become re-election campaign events. And I heard on the news just this morning that he’d cancelled the daily press briefing yesterday as no longer worthwhile because he was getting only ‘hostile questions’. That says a lot about the man.

Having promoted hydroxychloroquine as a remedy for the virus, he then turned to disinfectants and light as possible cures.  How stupid (and dangerous) can the man get?

He’s mostly incoherent, unable even to read a prepared text without stumbling over the words. This is how he speaks all the time, comments on the virus situation. Just listen to his actual words (not an impression) mimed by this girl pretending to have had one too many. He really is losing his marbles.

So what’s the solution? Well, I think these folks have it down pat (with an interesting take on Dave Newman’s 1972 hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight, reprised by Tight Fit in 1982). This video has gone viral (sorry about the pun) in the USA among Democrats, who can only hope—and campaign to ensure—that Trump is not re-elected come November.

But what an indictment of a serving POTUS. It beggars belief.


I put these words in print, so to speak, as an indication of what I’ve been thinking about over these past few days as the competency of governments to handle the Covid-19 crisis is increasingly called into question. And to look back on once we come out the other side.

It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure (Marquis de Sade)

Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it. Donatien Alphonse François was such a sad character. Not my scene.

Pain is nature’s way of warning of danger. It’s always a relief (pleasure even?) however when pain goes away. Thank goodness for modern-day analgesics—and anaesthesia.

As I was completing my morning shower a few days, I happened to step on the hard rubber stop for the bathroom door. I hadn’t seen it underneath the bath mat. As I stooped to pick up the mat, I stepped forward on to the door stop. Ouch! But just a momentary ouch, I hasten to add.

But there’s an insidious hazard lurking in most households with small children.

Surely every parent has, at one time or another, painfully encountered a rogue Lego brick on the floor. This must be one of the most painful household—and probably frequent—’accidents’. We’ve all been there. I even came across an article that describes just why stepping on a Lego brick is so painful. It’s a combination of the shape and hardness of the bricks, and the fact that we have so many receptors on the soles of our feet.

Anyway, despite how much that hurts, as with most pain (in my experience) it’s often a challenge to remember just how bad it was after the pain has receded.

Take the time in January 2016 when I slipped on black ice outside my home, dislocated my ankle, and broke my leg, that I wrote about after coming out of hospital. I remember slipping and suddenly finding myself staring at the sky. Such a shock. I didn’t feel any pain immediately. It wasn’t until I tried to move that I felt this wave of excruciating pain engulf me. But once I’d calmed down, and my neighbors—mother and daughter, both nurses—had come to my aid, I just don’t remember feeling such pain again. Painful, yes, but more like a continual ache, but an intense ache. Once in the ambulance, dosed up with laughing gas, or on codeine and stronger morphine-based pills in hospital, the pain was kept under control. And eventually disappeared altogether. It’s remarkable how the body heals itself—with a little help along the way.

At a party one time while I was working at IRRI in the Philippines, the wife of one of my colleagues asked me how I was getting on. She’d heard that I’d had a rather painful dental intervention lasting nearly three hours and multiple novocaine (or whatever) injections. It wasn’t pleasant, to say the least, but with the anaesthetic, not particularly painful. I never look forward to a dental appointment. I guess it’s the anticipation of pain that stresses me. Anyway, this colleague’s wife said she’d rather go through childbirth rather than having a dental appointment. I’m pretty sure that’s a rather singular opinion, a real aversion to the dentist and anticipation of pain.

A few nights ago, I caught the tail end of the first episode of a three part series, Pain, Pus & Poison (first broadcast in 2013) by medical doctor Dr Michael Moseley. I must catch up when I have the opportunity.

But the point that caught my attention was that medicine has been able to control pain only relatively recently. It beggars belief just what our forebears (grandparents even) had to endure if they became sick, and worse even if the ‘remedy’ involved surgery of any type. Cure being worse than the cause even.

In my mind’s eye, the historian in me would love to visit previous centuries, to see what things were really like. Then the horrors of satirist William Hogarth’s cartoon Gin Lane (published in support of the Gin Act 1751) come to mind, and any such desires quickly disappear.

‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Despite the fact that there’s a crazy occupant of the White House right now, touting all sorts of cures for Covid-19, I’m more than happy to place my confidence in medical science. No quackery for me. I am thankful that I was born in this age, and that the relief of pain is an outcome that is readily achievable for most conditions.

But watch out for that rogue brick!


 

Two delightful country houses in deepest Warwickshire

Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are impressive houses in Warwickshire, a few miles east of Junction 16 on the M40 motorway (map) near the village of Lapworth. The former started life as a Tudor farmhouse in the 1550s, whereas Baddesley Clinton is a moated manor house dating from the 13th century. They are just 2½ miles apart. Both are owned and managed by the National Trust.

The entrance to Packwood House.

Baddesley Clinton from the north.

We consider them among our ‘local’ properties, being only 17 miles away (and usually just over 20 minutes) from Bromsgrove down the M42 and M40 motorways. We have visited both several times over the years since we joined the National Trust.

There are interesting walks around both. I don’t have photos of the three mile Packwood walk (map), but I have written about a delightful walk we made at Baddesley Clinton in mid-October 2018.


Let’s first turn to Packwood House.

It’s not what it seems. I’ve even seen it described as a pastiche. There’s no doubt that the house does date from the sixteenth century, originally built for William Featherston. It remained in the Featherston family for generations. There are few original features in the house, but the garden is a reflection of former generations. The Yew Garden in particular, which is reputed to have been planted in the 1670s by John Featherston, grandson of William.

Graham Baron Ash

But the house we see today, and its interiors, are the creation of Graham Baron Ash (Baron being his second name, not a title), who inherited Packwood House on the death of his Birmingham industrialist father, Alfred James Ash, in 1925.

This article, on the Landed Families of Britain and Ireland website (published in December 2015), not only describes the genealogy of the Ash family, but also details how Baron Ash set about restoring Packwood House, installing new features like the staircase, and building a link (The Long Gallery) between the house and a converted barn. He then set about acquiring architectural salvage from houses that were being demolished (detailed in the web article I referred to above). Unless you were aware of this story before visiting Packwood House, you’d probably have no idea that the interiors were a ‘fantasy’. But an elegant fantasy.

To one side of the house is a sunken garden, and beyond that the Yew Garden.

This link will take you to an album with all the photos taken during our various visits to Packwood House.

Satisfied with his creation, Baron Ash donated Packwood House, its contents, and gardens to the National Trust in 1941, although he continued to live there until 1947 when he moved to Wingfield Castle in Suffolk.


Baddesley Clinton retains much of its medieval ancestry. Entrance to the house is across the moat that surrounds the house.

The estate was acquired by John Brome in 1438, and passed to his son Nicholas, who built the nearby Church of St Michael. On Nicholas’s death in 1517, Baddesley Clinton passed to his daughter Constance who had married Sir Edward Ferrers, Sheriff of Warwickshire. It was Edward Ferrers who reconstructed the house much as we see today. He is buried in the church, as is Nicholas and many generations of the family. The Ferrers were a recusant Catholic family, and there is a priest hole in the gate tower.

The house remained in the Ferrers family for five centuries until 1940, when it was sold to a distant cousin who changed his name to Ferrers. The National Trust acquired the estate from his son in 1980.

I have included many photos of the interior of the house in this album.

The gardens are not extensive, but the National Trust gardeners keep the borders looking spick and span. At the time of our 2018 visit, there were dahlias of all colors in bloom. On the side of one building a glorious wisteria blooms in the early summer.


Even though Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton are such a short distance apart, there is too much to see if you would try to include both in a single visit. About four years ago, a new shop and restaurant were constructed at Packwood House serving great meals. Baddesley Clinton has a sheltered courtyard next to converted outbuildings (not inside the moat) where one can enjoy an excellent cup of coffee and a National Trust flapjack sitting in the sun, weather (and Steph) permitting.

 

 

 

 

Nothing to fear but fear itself . . . (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933)

Maybe. Unless the threat causing fear of danger, pain, or harm is tangible.

Fear is a powerful emotion. We all surely experience fear at some point in our lives. Some of that fear we are able to rationalise because we understand the threat (or at least the risk). I guess it rarely gets to the level where we feel paralysed, but as our anxiety levels rise, then our ability to respond decreases.

While we may be aware of a potential threat, when or where it impacts cannot often be predicted with certainty. Whatever it may be, we can all recall experiences that were unpleasant, dangerous even, causing our anxiety level to rise. And there is so many things in our surroundings beyond our control that do precisely this.


Let’s begin with war or civil conflict. Thankfully, I have not personally experienced war or civil conflict first hand. I have not dreaded being attacked, or cowered in fear of being bombed like refugees today in the Yemen or Syria, for instance. And regrettably in so many continuing conflicts around the world.

But I have experienced the fear of the threat of war. Take October 1962, for example. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the world came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war between the USA and USSR. The behavior of some political leaders today (no names no packdrill) does not inspire confidence that careless words and actions won’t lead us down a similar road to conflict. In fact, one particular head of state seems hell bent on confronting friends and foes alike.

I was in high school back in October 1962, almost 14 years old. I remember quite clearly the approaching 3 pm GMT deadline on that fateful October day (the 25th?), and wondering whether any of us would be alive beyond the end of the day. I was certainly anxious.


In terms of geological threats, I lived on the slopes of two volcanoes, both dormant (or at least thought to be dormant).

In Costa Rica, the Turrialba Volcano towers more than 3300 m over the town of Turrialba where I lived for almost five years from April 1976 until November 1980. I even once went to the summit of the volcano. There were no signs of life, just perhaps a little steam emitted on one side of the crater. In the last decade however, it has become explosively active, threatening surrounding towns.

In quieter times, the Turrialba Volcano from my garden at CATIE in Turrialba.

In the Philippines, IRRI Staff Housing was built on the lower slopes of Mt Makiling. Although considered dormant, there is geothermal activity locally, and just 20km or so due west lies the dangerous Taal Volcano, which became active earlier this year; it has since subsided.

Mt Makiling overlooks the experimental fields at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

However, I’ve never been threatened directly by volcanoes, although on a couple of occasions serious volcanic eruptions almost disrupted my travel plans.

Just before I was due to join IRRI on 1 July 1991, Mt Pinatubo blew its stack in mid-June, closing Manila airport some 54 miles southeast of the volcano. By the beginning of July, the volcano’s activity had subsided sufficiently for the airport to be reopened, and life began to return to normal for most Filipinos. But not those close to the volcano who had seen their livelihoods destroyed. This eruption was totally unexpected. Pinatubo was covered in dense forests, heavily eroded, showing no signs of having erupted for centuries if not millennia. This was one of the most powerful eruptions in the 20th century.

In April 2010, a couple of weeks before I was due to retire from IRRI, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland, and its ash cloud shut down air travel over Europe for almost a week. My concern was whether Steph and I would be able to return to the UK.

Now earthquakes are a different matter. In a country like Peru, where Steph and I lived from July 1973 until April 1976, there can be no doubt that earthquakes happen frequently, many quite minor but, on occasion, some major ones as well. It’s one thing to appreciate that Peru is tectonically active, it’s quite another to know when earthquakes might hit. It’s the unpredictability, the uncertainty that increases one’s anxiety.

And when a major quake does hit, such as we experienced in October 1974 (over 8 on the Richter Scale, and lasting over two minutes) I can only describe my reaction as fear! There were few deaths. Most people, in Lima at least, were at work, in buildings that had been constructed to withstand such movements. Unlike the May 1970 disaster in central Peru when more than 70,000 people died, as the result of a massive landslide caused by the earthquake.

Fear, yes. Fear about aftershocks and how bad they will be. We lived on the 12th floor of an apartment building then. And there were some pretty serious aftershocks. I found myself in a continuous state of anxious anticipation. Even today I’m highly sensitive to any movement that even hints of an earth tremor. My hair started to turn grey around that time as well.


What about weather events? Here in the UK we’ve had some pretty nasty winter storms over the past two winters. I hate the sound of the wind howling around the rafters, sudden gusts that sound (and feel) as if they are going to rip the roof off. But these UK storms are nothing in comparison to the tornadoes that break out across parts of the USA, causing devastation as they touch down. I’ve only ever seen minor twisters, and hope never to find myself in the path of a full bloodied tornado. Or a hurricane for that matter, although we came close to Hurricane Dorian last September on the coast of New Jersey as we travelled around the eastern seaboard of the USA.

In the Philippines, however, I have lived through many typhoons, some mega-typhoons, that came right over the top of Los Baños, south of Manila, where we lived at IRRI. Like Typhoon Xangsane (or Milenyo as it was named in the Philippines) in September 2006. Yes, it’s really frightening to hear and feel winds of 200kph batter your house, meanwhile seemingly dump bathfuls of water every second on the roof. It caused considerable damage at IRRI Staff Housing. And as with many typhoons, it’s often not the damage caused by the high winds that are the main problem (serious as they are), but the impressive and damaging amounts of rain that a typhoon can dump on an area, especially if it’s a slow-moving system.

But hurricanes and typhoons are predictable in one sense. They can be tracked before they make landfall, and precautions set in train beforehand to evacuate vulnerable communities if necessary (and possible). Although, as I have seen too often I’m afraid, this time advantage is not always exploited.


And so it goes with the current Covid-19 pandemic. Our government here in the UK, and perhaps even more so in the USA, culpably failed to take heed of what was happening elsewhere in the world. They lost valuable time, weeks even, in preparing for the worst that this nasty little virus could throw at us.

Yes, this pandemic makes me fearful. While my wife and I have not been affected physically, life has changed. For the time-being at least. It looks like lockdown will be here for at least another three weeks, if not longer. And I cannot see how we can return to a ‘new normal’ until a Covid-19 vaccine affords the necessary protection that we just don’t have right now.

My anxiety levels on some days have been sky high. I’ve had days of quite deep depression. We know the virus is there. We can’t see it. We don’t know if any persons standing next to us, albeit at a social distance of at least 2m, has the virus but is not showing any symptoms. We are fearful because we have seen just how infectious the pathogen is, and how sick people can become, with a very high mortality rate among the old (especially if they have underlying health issues). Steph and I are both in our seventies.

But the fear is not just about health. It’s also fear of financial loss, of lives blighted for a generation. Not just us. We have fewer years remaining to us. But our daughters and their families.

This Covid-19 pandemic is the first experienced by most people worldwide. Perhaps there hasn’t been a threat like this since the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918. That’s not to downplay the SARS, MERS, and ebola epidemics of recent years. Or the ongoing fight against tuberculosis, the resurgence of measles because of the actions of anti-vaxxers, and many other health problems confronting us today. It’s just that Covid-19 is caused by a novel pathogen, for humans at least. That’s the frightening aspect, and until we have that protection, many of us will continue to experience mental health problems even if we do not contract the virus as such.

Keep safe everyone.


 

Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.