The past changes a little every time we retell it (Hilary Mantel).

When I retired in 2010, I briefly toyed with the idea of enrolling at the Open University for a BA degree in history. That would have been quite a departure for me, since I already have graduate degrees in botany.

However, over the years working as an agricultural research scientist and academic, I developed a keen amateur interest in history, and was fortunate to visit many interesting historical and archaeological sites all over the world, such as the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for example, or the Great Wall of China, that stand as silent and emblematic reminders of once powerful empires.

When you think about it, history is often the narrative of subjugation of one nation, society or culture by another. To the victors the spoils, who then make the rules, control the narrative.


Much of my recreational reading for the past 30 years consisted of biographies and histories. Not just UK history, but increasingly, accounts of the American Civil War in particular. During our road trip in the USA in 2019, I persuaded Steph to include several important Civil War sites in our itinerary.

I also quite enjoy historical novels, and over the past few months polished off the Wolf Hall trilogy by twice winner of the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel.

So much so that I then borrowed A Place of Greater Safety from our local library, her 1992 account of the French Revolution seen through the eyes of three protagonists: Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. That inspired me to find a history of that traumatic event. So I’ve now just opened the first pages of Stephen Clarke’s The French Revolution (first published in 2018) that I came across on the library website. I must look for Simon Schama’s 1989 Citizens.


When I was in high school in the 1960s neither of my two (maybe three) history teachers spawned any affection for their subject. Everything was taught by rote, with little contextual analysis of principals or events. In contrast, my two daughters Hannah and Philippa, who studied for their International Baccalaureate (IB) Diplomas at the International School Manila, thrived on history (even though both became psychologists). Hannah’s extended essay (an IB requirement, which she could have chosen from any of her six subjects) focused on the impact of the emerging railways on the canals in 19th century England. Philippa had a poor history experience for the first year of her IB course, which was rescued in the second when a new teacher, Mr Fischer, was appointed to take over a potentially failing class. He dragged them up by their historical bootstraps, so to speak, encouraging them to higher achievements. Philippa was awarded the highest grade 7, one of the few at that level worldwide for her particular modern European history course. How I wish I’d had an inspirational history teacher like that.


While I’ve more recently taken an interest in American history, I was initially drawn to 18th and early 19th century European history, essentially the period between the accession George I in 1714 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This was the Age of Enlightenment and industrialization, the transition from rural to urban economies, with all the privations that growing urban populations had to endure. It was a time of great social change, but also polarization of politics, particularly as that age-old rivalry between Great Britain and France spilled over into so many different conflicts across Europe. It was also an age of colonial expansion (by many powers, not just Great Britain) and empire building. And the height of slavery.


Historical narratives do change, as new evidence comes to light and events reinterpreted. I never cease to be amazed at how much of the last 1,000 years of our history is carefully preserved in the National Archives at Kew in London, where primary documents are available for historical research. I also discovered that the UK Parliament still prints its laws (for archival purposes) on long-lasting vellum made from calf- or goat-skin. The oldest extant law available on vellum dates back to 1497.

But apart from dates and places, people and events, history is also about relationships, of motives, of actions taken and their consequences. That’s why narratives do meander over the years, depending on the interests and perspectives of each historian, and whether they have a particular historical (or even political) axe to grind.


Today, however, historians (and society in general) face another challenge: how to view the past through a 21st century prism, as well as in terms of today’s mores.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) anti-racism campaign has forced us all to confront the uncomfortable truth that the twin abominations of racism and slavery are very much part of our nation’s narrative.  As are the consequences of colonial expansion and empire and that, all-too-frequently, atrocities were perpetrated in the name of King/Queen and Country. Abominations that must be acknowledged, not set aside or brushed under the carpet as irrelevant to society today.

Since I was born in the first half (just) of the 20th century, in 1948 actually, can I be held responsible for what past generations perpetrated? Not directly, of course. We can’t turn back the clock, but my generation can finally face up to issues that, until now, were too uncomfortable to accept or talk about openly.

One particular highlight of the BLM campaign here in the UK last year was the toppling of the statue of Bristol merchant and philanthropist, Sir Edward Colston (1636-1721), that ended up in Bristol harbour.

The statue was erected in 1895, but in recent years Bristolians had begun to question why the city continued to give prominency to someone whose fortune was derived from his involvement in the slave trade. At least one civic building and street had also been named after him.

But was giving Colston’s statue the heave-ho an acceptable way to address this issue? Can we expunge Colston and his like from history? Clearly the answer is ‘No’. A few days after his downfall, the statue was retrieved from the depths of the harbour, and after undergoing repair and cleaning, it will be displayed in a local museum in a way that contextualises Colston and the age in which he lived. We need explanation and understanding, not destruction.

The same goes for other statues, such as that of imperialist (and racist) Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College at Oxford University. Oxford is not the only place where Rhodes has faced this ignominy.

Some protestors have demanded the removal of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill from Parliament Square in London, because of his racist and imperialist views. Churchill was not alone among his generation in being racist. But he is celebrated today for his leadership as the nation faced an overwhelming threat from Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The question we need to ask is whether his racism should trump his war leadership record? We need, I believe, a nuanced appraisal and understanding of this statesman (and others as well). We can and should condemn unacceptable (to us) beliefs and actions, but they also have to be understood in their contemporaneous context.


Steph and I are keen members of the National Trust, and if you check out the National Trust and English Heritage page on this blog, you will find accounts of the many glorious country houses that we have visited over the past decade.

In the wake of BLM campaign, some are accusing the National Trust of being overly woke. On a recent visit to Cragside in Northumberland, there was this message at the foot of the main staircase relating to a statue higher up:

I came across this article by historian David Olusoga in The Guardian yesterday, a commentary on those who are attacking ‘woke’ history.

The National Trust has a big task ahead. You only have to visit properties like Powis Castle where there is an impressive collection of Indian artefacts once belonging to Robert Clive, one of the founders of the British Empire in India. Or Kedleston Hall near Derby, where some of the treasures on display date from the period when George Nathaniel, Lord Curzon was Viceroy of India.

The treasures in these houses (and many others in the National Trust portfolio) were assembled over decades if not centuries through colonial settlement and/or slavery. Now the National Trust is beginning to better explain the background to the accumulation of such wealth. But it’s not just colonialism and slavery. For many land owners their wealth was created much closer to home, through merciless exploitation of the labouring classes, almost as a form of slavery in itself.

Confronting the past will be a challenge for the National Trust, and society as a whole. Then there are the ‘spoils’ of empire building locked up in museums all over Europe. The debate continues whether museums should repatriate artefacts that were acquired (= stolen in many instances) during the Age of Empire.

At least one museum, the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne has revealed plans to ‘decolonize’ its collections, because . . . a number of our objects are inextricably linked with Britain’s colonial past and systemic racism . . . acquired over 250 years.

As the museum’s Keeper of Archaeology stated: Decolonisation, for us, is not an attempt to completely rewrite history, but rather an effort to shed light on areas of our past that have been neglected, or simply ignored.

I’m sure other museums will follow. Hopefully this will, in a small way, help counter the British exceptionalism narrative that has emerged during the Brexit debate, that has, in my opinion, also revealed just how deep-seated racism is in our society today. Not overt racism perhaps, but pervasive all the same.


 

It’s all NEWS to me. Definitely not fake!

Cornwall

Over the past two weeks, Steph and I have been enjoying a BBC2 TV series about Cornwall by the Padstow-based chef, Rick Stein. For my non-UK readers, Cornwall lies at the southwest extremity of mainland Britain. In fact, the Lizard is the southernmost point.

Stein has made many other TV series, from locations all around the world, and they are primarily concerned with the food and dishes of those places. In his Cornwall series, however, Stein sets out to show what the county means to him, his home for more than five decades. Cheffing is just one aspect of the programs, as he also covers the beautiful landscapes, the people, as well as the excellent produce from land and sea for which Cornwall is renowned.

I’ve been to Cornwall just twice. In the late 1990s, while I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, and managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, I was contacted by someone from the Eden Project near St Austell, requesting samples of some rice varieties they might display in the tropical biome (in one of the original three geodesic domes).

As a special treat, Steph and I were invited to visit to the Eden Project in the summer of 2001 to have a behind-the scenes look at the project that had only just opened its doors to the public. It’s now a major world visitor attraction.

It took another sixteen years in September 2017 before we returned to Cornwall, to spend a glorious week touring the county, primarily to visit a plethora of National Trust and English Heritage sites. And among the places we visited was Lizard Point. You can’t get more southerly than here (49.9593° N, 5.2065° W). It was a glorious day when we visited, and we took advantage of the weather to walk along the cliffs and enjoy the vistas that opened up before us.

The map below shows where these photos were taken. Just check the partial vista symbols.

As we approached the view over Housel Bay and a collapsed cliff, I saw these black birds suddenly fly up from a nearby pasture. A few minutes later we were watching a pair of choughs (which feature on the Cornish coat of arms) on the rocks below. What a joy, since choughs are no longer common in Cornwall, and have only recently begun to re-establish themselves once cattle grazing practices had reverted to what was common before the chough decline. There are now about 100 breeding pairs of choughs in the county. A success story.

Having reflected on this visit to the southernmost point of mainland Britain, I remembered that, on 30 May 2015 during our 2250 mile tour of Scotland, we had visited the northernmost point of the mainland, at Dunnet Head (58.6719° N, 3.3760° W) in Caithness.

There are splendid views across the Pentland Firth to Orkney, and we were fortunate that during our visit (and John o’ Groats the day before) the views were clear. The day after you could hardly see 50m down the fog-bound road.

So as a keen geographer (I took a degree in environmental botany and geography at the University of Southampton at the end of the 1960s), I’ve always had an interest in the spaces around me; my internal GPS. That’s the N and S covered. How about E and W?

In terms of the British mainland, I’ve not visited either of the two locations with claim to E and W fame: Ness Point (52.4812° N, 1.7628° E) at Lowestoft on the coast of Suffolk in East Anglia, and Ardnamuchan Point in Scotland. I’ve been close to both but never actually visited.

What about my other NEWS around the world? Check out this map:


 

The darkest hour is just before the dawn (attributed to Thomas Fuller, 1650)

2 am or thereabouts. I’m wide awake. Not exactly just before the dawn, but sadly typical for me in recent days.

I usually settle down around 10:30 pm. But four hours on, there I am, lots of anxious thoughts swirling round my mind. I’m sure we’ve all been there. 

I’ve had my fair share of sleepless (or sleep-interrupted) nights in recent months. However, since we sold our house and moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne last September, I’ve been doing so much better. But now I feel as though I’m regressing to where I was four months ago. Why, for heaven’s sake?

When we sold our house, we hadn’t had opportunity to find and buy a new home (because we were moving 230 miles north, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, arranging house viewings from a distance was never an option). Instead, we took on a six month rental, sufficient time we envisaged to find and complete the purchase of a new home. Given that we were cash buyers, and no mortgage lenders were involved, we calculated (naïvely perhaps, on reflection) that purchasing a house under these circumstances would be pretty straightforward compared to the conveyancing trials and tribulations we experienced when selling our home. And, for the house we eventually chose, there was no chain of sales and purchases contingent one on the other.

So why the sleepless nights and increasing anxiety? Well, once again we are up against the inscrutable legal machinery (or conveyancing) of selling or purchasing a property.

Let me back up a little.

Just a few days after arriving in Newcastle and once we’d found our bearings, we began the search in earnest for a new home. We already had a list of houses of interest that we’d identified on various online sites, and made appointments to view several of these (observing, of course, the strict Covid-safe guidelines). It didn’t take long to settle on a particular house (not far from where we are renting), just two years old, and built to the latest insulation and other specifications and standards (important for two ‘old fogeys’ like Steph and me). In fact it was the third property we viewed. We quickly made an offer—a little below the asking price—that was accepted immediately. Even so, we did view some other houses afterwards as well, just to ‘validate’ our decision, in terms of location and price. 

The vendors of our new home (it’s not ours—yet) used an online estate agent (realtor), Purplebricks, to manage the sale of their property. We made our offer online as well, and were assigned a law firm to handle our side of the transaction. It seemed like a great deal. The fees were no greater than we’d had to pay a solicitor in Bromsgrove although, for a purchase, there are more fees involved than on the sale side.

The other feature that we found attractive was an online conveyancing system (eWay) that logs every phone call, email, signed document, and all other information related to the purchase. We receive regular messages telling us to check actions to complete and, in general, just keeping track of where we are in the whole process. So, in theory, we can track how our purchase is proceeding, and what steps are outstanding before contracts can be exchanged with the vendors, and a completion date agreed when we take possession of our new home.

As I said, our offer was accepted immediately, and property searches and title documents were all assembled within a month. We signed contracts ready for exchange and title transfer. However, our solicitor raised a whole series of enquiries (issues that might affect our ownership and enjoyment of the property) for the vendors and their solicitor to answer, most of which were responded to satisfactorily by the end of November.

But now we are stuck! How to cut the Gordian knot? Here’s the problem.

It’s common practice nowadays for the communal areas of a new housing development to be maintained by a management company, since local authorities often don’t have the financial wherewithal to take these on. Where we are moving to is no different. For reasons that neither the vendors or ourselves can fathom, the vendors’ solicitor has stalled on obtaining the necessary documents from the management company or their agent here in Newcastle that are needed before the title deeds can be registered in our names.

The clock is ticking. Under the terms of our rental agreement, we have to vacate our rental by 31 March. Yet my solicitor still can’t give us a date when we might exchange contracts with the vendors (which would then legally bind us to the purchase) nor when completion will take place and we can move into our new home. It seems like one obfuscation after another. Neither the vendor (whom I’m in contact with almost daily) nor I can fathom just who needs to do what, who to contact, or precisely what documents are needed. And when we ask our solicitors for clarification? Silence!

Before we moved north, it was a race to find a rental property, or else have nowhere to stay. Okay. There’s still ten weeks to the end of March, and a lot can happen—and probably quite fast once the final documents have been sorted—between now and then. Yet I can feel the pressure starting to mount, the stress increase, and a general feeling of anxiety and malaise creeping into my everyday life.

My elder daughter who lives in Minnesota is flabbergasted when I try to explain the intricacies of the house retail market here in England and Wales (there’s yet another legal system in Scotland; not sure about Northern Ireland), and just cannot understand why everything seems so complicated. While I completely understand that the legal transfer of title deeds to land or property must be executed correctly, I cannot understand why conveyancers make such a mystery of it all.

This is my current mood. I need happy thoughts . . . 


 

Exploring the mysteries of sex . . . and taking control!

I’ve been fascinated with sex (especially controlled sex) since my undergraduate days at the University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970. We were the socially permissive flower power generation.

But before you get too excited about this post’s content, I need to point out that, as a former botany student, I’m referring to sex among plants! And plant breeding. The real flower power!


Joe Smartt and Edgar Anderson

I guess it all started with two final year honours course on plant speciation (how different species evolve) and plant breeding, taught by geneticist Dr Joe Smartt. It was through the first that I discovered the beauty of introgressive hybridization (a mechanism that blends the gene pools of separate species; see a diagrammatic explanation in this post), a concept first expounded by another of my botanical heroes, Dr Edgar Anderson. And, there was this transformative book to dip into: Variation and Evolution in Plants (published 1950) by another great American botanist, G Ledyard Stebbins. In Joe’s introduction to plant breeding, we followed yet another classic text: Principles of Plant Breeding by American plant breeder and geneticist, Robert W Allard.

Trevor Williams

And when I moved to the University of Birmingham as a graduate student in September 1970, to study for a Master’s degree in plant genetic resources, Trevor Williams taught a fascinating course on plant variation, emphasising their breeding systems, and how understanding of these was important for the conservation and use of genetic resources. Much of my career subsequently was then spent studying variation and breeding systems in two important crop species, potatoes and rice, and a minor legume species, the grasspea.


Plants reproduce in the most weird and wonderful ways. If they didn’t, humanity’s days would be numbered. Where would we be if wheat and rice plants failed to produce their grains, the potato its underground treasure of tubers, or the banana those abundant hands of green fruits? No wonder in times past folks celebrated a Harvest Festival each autumn to give thanks for a successful harvest.

Beautiful acorns on the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur

You only have to look about you in late summer, as I did each day on my walks last year, to see Nature’s bounty all around—the consequence of plant sex. The trees and bushes were dripping with fruit—2020 was a mast year (as I have written about before). I don’t think I’ve seen such a year for acorns on the oak trees. And the chestnuts, hazels, and so many others. Such exuberant fecundity!


Have you ever looked closely at a ‘typical’ flower? Well, for the most part you can see the female pistil(s) comprising the style, stigma, and ovary, and the male stamens that carry the pollen.

However, there are many variations on this basic theme, different arrangements of the sex organs, even separate male and female flowers on the same plant (known as monoecy; maize is a good example) or separate plants (dioecy; holly). Differences in plant reproductive morphology promote self fertilization or cross fertilization. In addition, there is a host of physical and genetic mechanisms to promote or prevent self fertilization, as well as limiting sex between different species. All of this is aimed at ensuring a next generation of plants, and the one after that, and so on.

Plants attract a host of pollinators: visiting insects such as bees and moths, even some nectar-feeding marsupials and bats. I watched a remarkable sequence on David Attenborough’s latest blockbuster series, A Perfect Planet a few nights ago, about the fascinating pollination role of fig wasps.

Then I came across this tweet. Cockroaches of all creatures!

Wind pollination is a common feature of many grasses. However, several wheat and rice species, for example, promiscuously dangle their stamens apparently seeking cross fertilization. But they have often self fertilized before their flowers open. That’s not to deny that some cross pollination does occur in these species, but it’s generally the exception.

Some plants appear to reproduce sexually, but they have got around actual sex through a mechanism known as apomixis. These plants produce seeds but not following the normal fertilization process, so each seedling is a genetic copy of the ‘mother’ plant.

Berries on a diploid potato species, Solanum berthaultii

Other species have given up sex (almost) altogether, instead reproducing vegetatively with the ‘offspring’ being genetically identical (or essentially identical) to the mother plant. In others, like the potato, propagation is primarily through tubers. Yet, in the Andes especially where potatoes were first domesticated, many varieties are extremely sexually fertile, and produce berries rather like small tomatoes, although they are inedible. They contain lots of small seeds that we often refer to as true potato seed or TPS. In fact, in one experiment I observed at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru where I worked during the 1970s, a colleague of mine recorded a particular variety known as Renacimiento producing more than 20 t/ha of berries, in addition to about 20 t of tubers.


Anyway, I digress somewhat. During the years I was active scientifically (before I joined the ranks of senior management at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, IRRI in the Philippines), I looked into various aspects of reproductive biology of several species.

In my doctoral research, carried out in the Andes of Peru, I investigated the breeding relationships between potato varieties with different numbers of chromosomes. The potato we consume almost on a daily basis (at least in my home) is known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, and has four sets (48 in total) of chromosomes. It is what we call a tetraploid. Many other potato species have only two sets or 24 chromosomes, and are known as diploids. The tetraploid forms are mostly self fertile; diploids, on the other hand, have a genetic system of self incompatibility, and will only produce seeds if pollinated with pollen from a different genetic type.

This or similar system of self incompatibility is known from other species, like poppies for example. Anyway, the outcome is that ‘self’ pollen will not germinate on the stigma. The two images below (of various pollinations among wild potatoes), show a typical compatible pollination and fertilization event. Lots of pollen grains have stuck to the stigma, have germinated and grown the length of the style to reach the numerous ovules in the ovary.

In these next images, showing incompatible pollinations, few pollen grains remain on the stigma, not all germinated, and those that did, grew erratically. A few pollen tubes may reach the ovules but compared to the compatible pollinations, they are many fewer.


In the 1970s, one of my colleagues at CIP, Chilean breeder/agronomist Primo Accatino, championed the use of TPS as an alternative to propagation from seed tubers. One of the weak links, as it were, in any potato production cycle is the availability and cost of disease-free seed tubers. So TPS was seen as potentially fulfilling a gap in many developing countries that had neither the infrastructure nor staff to support seed potato production.

As I mentioned earlier, the common potato is a tetraploid with four sets of chromosomes, and this complicates the genetics and breeding. Breeding at the diploid level could be more straightforward. At least that was the hope and the challenge when I embarked on a project to produce TPS lines through inbreeding diploid potatoes and single seed descent. Funded by the British government, it involved scientists at the University of Birmingham (where I had joined the staff in 1981), the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and CIP in Peru.

Was this just a pipe dream? Perhaps. Before developing the project concept, I’d had extensive discussions with my colleague at Birmingham, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence who worked on self incompatibility in poppies (that has a similar genetic system to that in potatoes). His experience with poppies showed that if one tried long and hard enough, it was possible to break the self incompatibility.

Flowers of Solanum chacoense

We tried—and ultimately failed—closing the project after five years. We decided it would take just too much investment to make progress. If only we’d had available then what are now helping to transform potato breeding: self compatible diploid lines. At the end of the 1990s, scientists working at the USDA potato collection in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin identified self compatible lines in the widespread wild species Solanum chacoense. The Sli gene that confers self compatibility is apparently more widespread than previously thought, and has now been bred into diploid lines. Had we had those self compatible lines back in the 1980s, our work would have perhaps have reached a better conclusion.


When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 to head IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), I had a collection of around 100,000 different lines of rice, cultivated and wild, to conserve in the institute’s International Rice Genebank.

With my colleagues in GRC, Dr Lu Bao-Rong, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano and Dr Ma Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, I spent several years investigating the breeding relationships between the cultivated forms of rice, Oryza sativa from Asia, and O. glaberrima from West Africa, and the closest wild Oryza species with a similar AA genome. We made thousands of crosses with the aim of understanding not only the breeding relationships, which is important to be able to better use wild species in rice breeding, but also to understand the taxonomy of wild and cultivated rices.

Pollinations (L) in the genebank screenhouse among AA genome species from Asia, Australia, and the New World, and (R) a crossing polygon from those pollinations expressed in terms of spikelet fertility.

This work led to several scientific publications, which you can access here: just look for publications with our names.


Another aspect of plant sex, important for genebank managers, is how the environment can affect plant fertility. While the seeds of many species (including rice and potatoes) can be stored at a low temperature (typically -18ºC) and for decades if not longer, it is essential that only the best seeds are placed in a genebank for long term conservation. That means ensuring that the growing conditions are the best possible to produce seeds of high quality—and in abundance—during an initial multiplication or later on for rejuvenation after some years of storage, if seed stocks are running low, or there are signs that seed viability may be declining.

At IRRI, in Los Baños south of Manila, we were faced with managing a large germplasm collection of rice lines from all over Asia, from Africa, and South America as well. And these had been collected over a very broad latitudinal range, while Los Baños sits at around 14ºN. We were attempting to grow in a single location many different rice lines, some of which had evolved under more temperate conditions, under different temperature regimes and daylengths.

Kameswara Rao

With my colleague Dr Kameswara Rao (and Professor Richard Ellis from the University of Reading, UK) we spent three years carefully analyzing the effects of different growing environments on seed quality for conservation. Just look for publications here under our names to check out what we achieved. The important changes we made to how we grew rice lines for optimum seed quality have endured until today, although (as I have reported elsewhere) changes to post-harvest handling of seeds have been improved through the work of former IRRI seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay.


So, as you can see, there are many different, and interesting, facets to plant sex. And as plant breeders and gene conservationists, we aim to exploit the idiosyncrasies of each species to produce more productive crop varieties or ensure the long term survival of varieties that no longer find favor with farmers, or wild species whose habitats are threatened through agricultural expansion, increasing urbanization, or climate change.


 

Thoughts from a neo-psephologist

Until now, I’ve never really been in favor of proportional representation in elections. But as I get older (though probably not a lot wiser) I’m coming round to the idea, and electoral reform in general (not only in the UK but elsewhere). The UK’s First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. It’s not as though we’ve never had a stab at proportional representation. Elections to the European Parliament were run in this way.

So what has brought about this Damascene experience? Well, you only have to examine the consequences of the 19 December 2019 General Election here in the UK or the recent presidential election in the USA to realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV). The current parliamentary makeup is not serving the people adequately here.

I’m surely not the only person who feels that the current Boris Johnson-led Conservative Government is the most inept, corrupt even, of any government they have had to live under. During my lifetime (I’m 72), the UK has had fifteen Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson served twice; there was a gap of almost four years between his first administration ending in June 1970, and returning to power in March 1974), eleven were Oxford educated, one at Edinburgh, and the other three (including Sir Winston Churchill) did not go to university.

Without a shadow of a doubt, in my opinion, classics scholar (a term I deploy advisedly) Boris Johnson is in a league of his own as perhaps the worst Prime Minister of the lot. I admit that my Twitter feed is full of tweets from like-minded individuals. And cronyism is definitely on the rise during this Covid-19 pandemic, as analysis of the award of contracts, for example, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) has clearly indicated. What I find hard to understand is why Johnson isn’t doing worse in the polls.

Opposition parties in Parliament are there to hold the government of the day to account. But with an overall majority of more than 80, this Tory government is essentially unassailable. Yes, it has had a few wobbles when Eurosceptic Tories have voted against their own party. But with Brexit [1] out of the way, so to speak, Johnson and his cohorts essentially have unlimited licence over the next four years until the next mandated General Election to do whatever they like. And we should all be worried about that.

Taking the UK out of the European Union has already eroded a number of significant rights and privileges that membership gave all citizens of the UK. I simply don’t trust Johnson to legislate for the greater good.

So, let’s look at the last General Election.

Voter turnout was greater than 67% (of a registered electorate of more than 47.5 million). I don’t claim to have access to a significant amount of data or to be anything like an expert. These are just some of my observations that reflect my concerns about electoral reform.

Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives won 365, on a 43.6% share of the votes cast.

That means that more than 56% of the voting public supported parties other than the Conservatives. Labour’s share was 32.1%, giving them only 202 seats. The next biggest party (with just 3.9% of the national vote) was the Scottish National Party (SNP) with 48 seats, all in Scotland of course. Scotland is now an SNP monopoly after winning just a 45% share of the votes across the 59 Scottish constituencies. The Greens attracted 2.7% of the national vote but gained just a single seat. As for the Liberal Democrats, the situation was even more dire: 11.6% share of the votes resulting in only 11 seats in Parliament. No wonder the Lib Dems have long advocated a change to proportional representation.

If seats were allocated based on their share of the vote, the Conservatives would have just 283, Labour 208, and the Lib Dems, 75. I voted Lib Dem at the last election, but it was essentially a wasted vote, as would have been a vote for the Labour candidate in my constituency at the time, Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, that was retained by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, who retained his seat with a slightly increased share of the votes cast, at 63.4%.

Now in constituencies that have long enjoyed domination by one party or another, such as Conservative Bromsgrove for example or Labour-held Knowsley on Merseyside (with an almost 40,000 majority, >80% of votes cast), proportional representation is hardly likely to change that sort of result. However, where the number of votes cast per candidate is more evenly spread, and where the FPTP winner actually has a minority share of the vote, then proportional representation is going to have a much more significant effect.

How the constituencies could be re-designated to better reflect current demographics I’ll leave to others better qualified to propose. But I do believe that ‘voting areas’ should be larger than the current constituencies, say counties with each’county’ returning the same number of MPs as they do in total now. But for each there could be a slate of candidates, and the seats would be allocated by the total number of votes cast per political party (similar to how the MEP elections were held in the past). There needs to be a thorough discussion about the actual system of proportional representation, and I’m not qualified to comment on that particular aspect.

I do feel strongly that we need a House of Commons that better reflects how the UK population votes. FPTP does not do that, and given the increasing polarization in political stances and viewpoints, I think we need a more nuanced approach to policy development and implementation. Yes, I appreciate that proportional representation is likely to lead to more coalition governments. Is that such a bad thing? I personally think that the Lib Dems were right to go into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 General Election. I don’t think they had much choice given that the country was trying to rebuild itself following the 2008/2009 financial crash.

Northern Ireland First Minister (of the DUP) Arlene Foster and then Prime Minister Theresa May after the June 2017 election.

Coalitions do come with disadvantages, however as seen in some countries that take months to form new coalition governments. Small (and maybe even extreme) parties can hold the balance. Take the religious parties in Israel, or more recently in the UK where the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Conservatives following the 2017 General Election that saw then Prime Minister Theresa May lose her majority, and therefore needed the backing of a ‘friendly’ party to keep Corbyn’s Labour at bay.

Given the current state of politics in the UK I believe the call for electoral reform will become a clamour in the not-too-distant future. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.


Let me turn my attention to what’s been happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Can you imagine that American politics would ever come to this? An incumbent President defeated decisively in a general election then, even more than two months on, not accepting that defeat, and going as far as trying to subvert the outcome.

From my UK perspective, the USA seems to have a crazier electoral system than we ‘enjoy’ over here. A House of Representatives that is elected every two years (with all the financial dangers of corruption to remain in power), gerrymandering across the country (especially in Republican-held districts), the billions of dollars that are raised and spent on political campaigns, and an election of the President every four years that does not take account directly of the popular vote.

Given the role of the Electoral College, election campaigns will always focus primarily on those so-called battleground states that ultimately give the winning candidate the 270 votes needed in the Electoral College to win the race.

Let’s look at the results of the 2016 General Election in the US, won by Trump in the Electoral College by 304 votes to 227, even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes.

Here is a series of maps that show the 2016 FPTP election results for President, county by county. It’s a sea of Republican red, right across the country, but with significant Democrat concentrations on the East and West Coasts, and some parts of the Mid-West.

But does that map reflect the distribution of party allegiances? Since the USA is essentially a two party nation, Republicans and Democrats, it’s straight forward to provide a rather more nuanced visualization of how everyone voted, with shades of purple reflecting the proportion of votes for each party. (This sort of map would be harder to compile for UK election results, since there were nine parties contesting the 2019 election, albeit some were regional parties like the SNP or DUP).

Even better perhaps is the same map, county by county, that shows the votes based on population, as its author stated: ‘Land doesn’t vote. People do.’ Check the visualization here. The Republican Party is primarily rural, and in those states and counties with  rather low population densities.

It’s incredible that two months on from last November’s election, which Joe Biden won with 51.4% of the popular vote (and a margin of more than 7 million votes) that Trump is still trying to game the system. Perhaps even more incredible that Trump himself won more than 74 million votes. A country divided!

This result gave Biden 306 votes to Trump’s 232. And, since he hates losers, Trump just cannot accept that he lost the election. And keeps ranting on about it.

The Electoral College does, in the 21st century, seem an anachronism. If the votes for Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20), and Georgia (16) are discounted, then Biden and Trump would have essentially the same number of college votes, 233 to 232. No wonder Trump is futilely trying to overturn the results from these states. If just over half of the people that voted for Biden in these five states had voted the other way, Trump would remain President. That means the election was essentially determined on just under 140,000 votes. From a popular vote of over 155 million (the highest turnout in over a century), to have an election resolved by less than 0.1% of those who voted seems a shaky basis for electing someone to ostensibly the most powerful office in the world.

Trump can cry foul at every turn, that the election was stolen from him, that the Democrats cheated, the election was a fraud. Funny how fraud only occurred in states that the Democrats won. This had crossed my mind several times. Today I saw it articulated publicly. Not sure who this is. I recognise the face but can’t put a name to it. I’m sure someone will enlighten me.

We think that Johnson and his pals have brought the UK into disrepute with their handling of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Media in the EU are openly mocking this government. In the same vein, Donald Trump has eroded respect for the USA globally. Although I’m not sure the MAGA Trumpists see it that way. Poor misguided fools . . .


[1] The 2016 Brexit referendum was won by the Leave campaign on 52% of the votes cast (but only 37% of the electorate). The FPTP system really failed us on this occasion, in my opinion. For something that had such constitutional, financial, social, and political consequences the referendum rules should have been tighter. I have long argued that not only should there be a minimum turnout (it was actually quite high at 72%), but that the winning margin needed to be 50% +1 of the persons eligible to vote, not those that actually voted. We have been forced to leave the European Union on the whims of less than 40% of the electorate, a substantial number of whom now say they regret having voted that way knowing now what they didn’t then, when they were promised ‘unicorns’ and ‘sunlit uplands’.


 

There is no way you can deny it . . .

It was July 1979. I was in Santiago de Chile for a few days, as a member of a three person team from the International Potato Center (CIP) to undertake a short review of the Chilean National Potato Program.

Joining me were my Lima-based colleagues, potato breeder Dr Nelson Estrada (a Colombian national) and Regional Representative for South America, Dr Oscar Malamud (from Argentina). I’d flown in from Costa Rica where I was leading CIP’s Regional Program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at the time..

It was a chilly evening, maybe 5ºC, mid-winter in Chile; Santiago lies at 33ºS. Street vendors were roasting chestnuts on open fires. We were out and about doing some tourist shopping (in my case) or buying beef to carry back to Lima (Nelson and Oscar) in spare suitcases, as there was a meat shortage and rationing in Peru in those days.

Then, as I wondered among the shops and market stalls, I heard this song floating over the hubbub of the street:

Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong
You’re enchained by your own sorrow
In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow
How I hate to see you like this
There is no way you can deny it
I can see that you’re oh so sad, so quiet

It was ABBA, of course, and this song, Chiquitita, immediately had an impact on me. It was released as the first single from their album Voulez-Vous in January that year. But I’d not heard it until then.

Here are ABBA performing (but lip-synching) the song at the Music for UNICEF Concert that same year, after which the group donated half of the royalties to UNICEF. Being one of ABBA’s most successful recordings, those royalties must have been quite significant.

I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t really been much aware of ABBA before encountering them on that Santiago street, so to speak. I was living in Peru in 1974 when they won the Eurovision Song Contest, with Waterloo. And, never having been a Eurovision fan, and because it didn’t figure in any news that I heard in Lima, their win passed me by. Neither was glam rock my thing. I came late to the ABBA party.

Anyway, after my Chiquitita experience, I went out and purchased a vinyl copy of Voulez-Vous the next time I passed through Miami, and thereafter enjoyed dancing around the living room back home in Costa Rica with my young daughter Hannah (then approaching two) to the many excellent songs that featured on that album, such as I Have A Dream, Angeleyes, Does Your Mother Know, and Kisses of Fire.

It wasn’t until I returned to the UK in 1981 that I really became an signed-up ABBA fan, and got hold of cassette tapes of some of their albums like Arrival (later replaced by CDs of Gold and Greatest Hits Vol. 2 when I moved to the Philippines in 1991).

In early 1982, I accompanied a group of my MSc students in plant genetic resources conservation on a two week course in Israel offered by Professors Gideon Ladizinsky and Amos Dinoor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Rehovot near Tel Aviv. I’d taken several cassettes of music to enjoy during the various field trips, and my ABBA tapes were among those. I distinctly remember one of the Birmingham group, a Polish PhD student pulling my leg about my enthusiasm for ABBA’s music. But she did reluctantly have to agree that their music was quite special.

The wonderful melodies and arrangements composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the beautiful voices and harmonies between Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Just a winning combination all round. So many hits. It’s no wonder that Mamma Mia! was such a hit show (I loved the film—don’t tell anyone; I watched it twice on one Emirates flight back to Manila not long after it was released in 2008).

However, having set up Spotify the other day to play through my Amazon Echo Dot and a Bluetooth speaker, I came across the entire ABBA catalogue, and decided to shuffle play the lot. And that’s when I realised that besides the many glorious songs that ABBA released, there were just as many (maybe more), and especially the early tracks, that are simply naff. Awful. I was really rather surprised. It’s no wonder these don’t get too many plays. So let’s forget about those and luxuriate in the many catchy and incredibly well-crafted songs that are their greatest hits.

So I suppose I have to tell you what my favorite ABBA song is. So many to choose from. But the one I keep coming back to is . . . drum roll:

It was released on The Visitors album in 1981.


Once this Covid-19 business is over . . .

The past year has been for many the most difficult year in living memory. As I have written before, Steph and I managed to cope remarkably well with the Covid-19 restrictions, simply because we are retired (in our early 70s), and already had several hobbies to keep us occupied. We didn’t have a lifestyle that demanded regular visits to restaurants or pubs. And once we were allowed out for regular exercise, and eventually some trips further afield, we could enjoy the summer months outdoors, and even visit some of the National Trust properties that had been closed to visitors early on in the pandemic.

We even managed to sell our house in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire and move north to the North Tyneside area of Newcastle upon Tyne, where we are in the final stages of purchasing a new home. The difficulties we experienced in selling our house had little to do with the pandemic per se, rather the idiosyncrasies of the solicitors in the chain of sellers/buyers. It was a most frustrating period of our lives, but made more so by the uncertainties around the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and whether we would even be able to move.

But here we are, and looking forward—with one major reservation—to a better 2021. So let’s address that ‘reservation’ straightaway.

It’s Brexit of course! At 11 pm last night (midnight Brussels time—we couldn’t even take control of that), the United Kingdom finally left the European Union. As a committed Remainer, I thoroughly deplore the decision that was reached in the 2016 referendum. Unfortunately, a majority of those who voted (but only about 37% of the population as such) swallowed the unicorn promises and lies of those leading the Leave campaign. Now the consequences of finally leaving and what it means for this country constitutionally, socially, economically, even culturally has to be owned by those individuals (too many to mention) led by that mendacious buffoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Yes, we finally left the EU, but with a trade deal signed into law at the eleventh hour on Wednesday. But that won’t be the end of it. Far from it. It’s undoubtedly a bad deal, but it has to be better than no deal at all. It will impoverish us as a nation. We have lost so many of the advantages of EU membership. Okay. Membership was far from perfect in several respects, but we were a stronger and more influential nation by being one of the twenty eight.

That paragon of civil liberties, Home Secretary Priti Patel, loves to crow that we ended ‘free movement’. Only for ourselves, but not for citizens of the remaining 27 countries. But hey, we have one consolation: blue passports!

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has taken a lot of stick for supporting ratification of the trade deal when it came before Parliament a couple of days ago. It seems to me that he took a page out of Otto von Bismarck’s book: Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.

Personally, I don’t think he had much choice, having to play the long game. He made it clear that this was, indeed, a bad deal, and why. Because no deal would have been so much worse for the country. Maybe he could have waited to see how Boris Johnson Tory Eurosceptics were likely to vote before committing the Labour Party to vote in favor instead of abstaining or voting against. But then he ran the risk that the deal might be defeated, which would have been even more damaging to the country. I don’t think that voting for the deal will do him much damage in the long run, because he clearly spelled why the deal was such a poor option, while accepting that things have to move forward. He was between a rock and a hard place. I don’t believe that Johnson will be able to taunt him about this in the future. Starmer has the Prime Minister’s measure, after all.

Even former Prime Minister Theresa May said the deal that has just been approved was worse than the one she brought before Parliament two years ago and that was rejected. Hey ho.

Whatever lies ahead, it is important that the Tories (and all Brexiters) are held accountable for whatever goes wrong now that we have left the EU.


Let’s draw a line under Brexit, and look to the positives of 2021.

Let’s celebrate science, specifically the glorious science and the outstanding teams of scientists that has brought several vaccines to market within the space of 10 months or so. Already almost 1,000,000 people in the UK have been vaccinated using the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine, and now that the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved, it looks like a mass vaccination program will be launched from 4 January. I hope we are on the list to be vaccinated soon. Even though glitches to the program have been announced and a shortage of actual vaccine!

Hopefully mass vaccination (notwithstanding the idiotic perspectives of the anti-vaxxers) will bring this awful pandemic under control. I don’t say defeat. I believe we are a long way from that eventuality, but at least we can anticipate that life will return to some sort of normality this year. With all the opportunities of being with family once more. We moved to Newcastle to be nearer to our younger daughter and her family. But because of coronavirus, we’ve hardly seen them, and then at a safe social distance outside. We even spent an hour on Christmas morning exchanging presents around a pit fire in the garden.

Then it was home to have lunch by ourselves.

We have the first months of 2021 to look forward to as we settle into our new home, hopefully by the end of March. Then we can expect to explore the north of England further afield than we have been able to until now. And, in August, we look forward to seeing our elder daughter Hannah and her family from Minnesota over here in the UK. Since 2010 we have been making an annual visit to the USA, but that was put on hold this past year. I doubt we’ll make it in 2021. There’s just too much recovery from the pandemic needed in the USA before we would feel really safe making the journey.

But there is also hope in that respect, on the horizon when, in less than three weeks, the losing incumbent moron and Cockwomble-in-Chief in the White House, President Donald Trump has to relinquish office and make way for his successor and No. 46, Joe Biden. After four years of upheaval and frankly idiotic behaviour in someone who is supposed to be the most powerful person on the planet, sanity will return to the White House, and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Hopefully, and very quickly, the USA will begin to engage with the rest of the world, something that has been sadly absent during the Trump years.


I guess the release of Covid vaccines and the election of Joe Biden are the two main things from 2020 that give hope for 2021. My fingers are crossed. I remain an optimist (although my optimism did take a bit of battering in 2020). My glass remains half full.