To the ends of the earth . . .

Recently, I was asked what was the farthest I’d ever traveled. Now, if you have followed my posts here on A Balanced Diet, you will know that I have written a good deal about road trips that Steph and I made in Peru during the early 1970s, in Australia in 2003, in the USA since 2011, and around Scotland in 2015.

I’ve also written about my love-hate relationship with aviation, and some of the flights I’ve made.

So, in the context of the question I was asked, I think it has to be a trip (or several) that I’ve made over the past 50 years. And how aviation has changed during that period.

The Boeing 747 made its maiden flight on 9 February 1969 and changed aviation forever, so it’s rather sad realizing that for most airlines, the Queen of the Skies is no longer operational as a passenger aircraft. The Covid pandemic essentially killed commercial passenger travel for two years. With the introduction simultaneously of more efficient jet liners like the Boeing 777 or 787, and the Airbus A350, the 747 became, except for a handful of airlines, an aviation white elephant. Notwithstanding that Emirates Airlines has reaffirmed its commitment—for the foreseeable future—to the Super Jumbo A380.


Before 1973, when I made my first intercontinental flight, I had flown only three times: from Glasgow (GLA) to Benbecula (BEB) in the Outer Hebrides in 1966; from London Heathrow (LHR) to Glasgow in January or February 1969 to attend a folk festival at Strathclyde University; and in April 1972 to attend a conference in Izmir, Turkey flying from Birmingham International (known as Elmdon Airport back in the day) to London, and on to Izmir (IGL, now a military airbase) with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul-Yesilköy (IST, now closed to passenger flights, I believe).

Then, on 4 January 1973, I flew from London Heathrow (LHR) to Lima, Peru (LIM) with intermediate stops at Antigua (ANU) in the Caribbean, Caracas (CCS) in Venezuela, and Bogotá (BOG) in Colombia, before touching down, late at night, at a rather sultry Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima.

This flight, just over 6500 miles, was operated by BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways, using a Boeing 707 like this one.

The Boeing 707 had a range of just over 4000 miles, and the stop in Antigua was necessary for refueling. Today, flights from Europe can easily reach Lima non-stop, and in July 2016 I flew from Amsterdam (AMS) on a Boeing 777 operated by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, taking about 13 hours if my memory serves me right.

I first flew to Asia in the 1980s, to attend a conference in Jakarta (HLP), Indonesia from Birmingham via Amsterdam. The AMS-HLP flight, operated by KLM was a Boeing 747 (probably 300) and there must have been an intermediate layover, but I don’t remember where. There were no non-stop flights into Asia then, a distance of over 7000 miles. And since I moved to the Philippines in July 1991, and remained there until April 2012, I have flown from there all over the world. Such as the trip I made around 1994 to South Africa on Singapore Airlines: 6855 miles and almost 11 hours flying time from Singapore (SIN) to Johannesburg (JNB) across the Indian Ocean.

We stayed in the Philippines for almost 19 years, returning to the UK each year on home leave. For the first decade we traveled with KLM through Amsterdam and with intermediate stops in either Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or Bangkok in Thailand. Then, in 2001, when Emirates began operating out of both Manila and Birmingham, we could fly home on a wide-bodied 777 with a short layover in Dubai of a couple of hours or so. The BHX-DXB flights were a little under 7 hours, and between DXB and Manila, a little over 8, with a total distance of more than 7700 miles.


It was a flight around 2005 that was my longest both in terms of miles and hours in the air. I had flown into Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) from Manila (MNL) to spend a weekend with my elder daughter Hannah who was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Direct flights to the USA (via a Tokyo hub) were operated by Northwest Airlines (NWA, now Delta Airlines). And I’d expected to continue all my internal flights on NWA. However there was a major strike and I had to scrabble around to find alternative flights on other airlines that would accept my NWA ticket. Eventually all was sorted, and the trip went ahead without any other hitches.

After my last stop in New York, I flew from New York-La Guardia (LGA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to connect with a United flight to Hong Kong-Kai Tak (HKG), with yet another connection on Canadian Pacific to Manila.

My intercontinental flights on NWA had been booked in Business Class (First on US domestic flights). United honored these tickets, and I was upgraded to First on the ORD-HKG flight, much to my relief. I knew it would be a long haul, but hadn’t appreciated just how long. Just under 7800 miles, and 17½ hours.

It was a 747-400, and every seat was taken. We were heavy! In fact, as we taxied out for take-off, our captain advised us there was a better than even chance that we would have to make a stop in Beijing to refuel given the anticipated headwinds. I can remember willing that aircraft into the air; what a long roll before rotation. As it transpired we didn’t have to land in Beijing, but the final couple of hours we must have been flying on vapor, or gliding into Hong Kong. The total trip was just under 9300 miles.


However, the longest trip of all was from BHX to Melbourne (MEL), Australia via Dubai (DXB) on Emirates Airlines (EK) in November 2016 when I had to attend a 3-day meeting of a genebank program I was reviewing.

I was joined by my good friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd. We met up in the Emirates lounge at BHX before setting off to DXB on a Boeing 777-300 ER, and connecting, after a layover of an hour or so, with an A380 flight to MEL.

Brian and me enjoying a wee dram on one of our A380 flights.

The flight to DXB took about 7 hours, a distance of 3500 miles. The connecting flight was 7200 miles and about 14½ hours. The return flights were slightly longer due to headwinds.

In total then this trip to Australia was the farthest I’ve traveled: more than 21 hours flying time, and around 10,700 miles.


 

 

I have a confession . . .

Indeed. I voted Conservative (the Tories for my overseas readers). Just the once mind you, and it was more than five decades ago. 18 June 1970. A General Election.

I’d turned 21 the previous November and was, for the first time, eligible to vote, even though this was the first election in which people could vote from the age of 18. My studies were over and done with, and I was about to graduate from the University of Southampton.

The Labour Party, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson had been polling favorably and was expected to win the election. But a late swing of just under 5% to the Conservatives gave them an overall majority in parliament of 30 seats. Edward Heath became Prime Minister. I cast my vote in the Southampton Test contest for the Conservative candidate James Hill.  Maybe it was a reaction to Wilson. I just don’t remember.

However, I’ve never voted Conservative since! And I never will again!

In fact I have voted in very few elections, even though I have always exercised my democratic right whenever possible, in both national and local elections. That’s because I spent January 1973 to March 1981 in South and Central America, and from July 1991 to April 2010 in the Philippines. I’ve voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, even the Green Party rather than supporting any Conservative candidate.

Bromsgrove (in north Worcestershire where we lived until two years ago) is a true blue constituency, and the sitting MP is former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid. Given the UK’s ‘first past the post’ voting system, my anti-Tory vote has essentially counted for nothing in every election, given the weight of Tory support throughout the constituency. Javid was re-elected in the 2019 election with an increased majority of more than 23,000.

Sajid Javid and Mary Glindon

Now that we have moved north, to North Tyneside (east of Newcastle upon Tyne), I can happily support the Labour MP, Mary Glindon and my vote will count.


They say that the older you get, the more right-wing you become. Is that so? Not in my case, and I’ll be 74 in just over three weeks.

In fact I’ve always been a ‘left of centrist’. And if you evaluate, in detail, what New Labour achieved under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I’d be proud to cast my vote again for their sort of politics. Notwithstanding, of course, Blair’s loss of reputation during the Iraq War and his close relationship with US President George W Bush.

Don’t let the Tories claim otherwise.

Which brings me on to the current standing of British politics that have certainly been turbulent recently. Three Prime Ministers in as many months.

The Three Brexiteers: Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

Not to mention three Home Secretaries, and four Chancellors of the Exchequer, and five Secretaries of State for Education.


I, like many, was delighted when Boris Johnson was finally forced from office in July.

Only to be replaced by perhaps the most incompetent Prime Minister ever to hold that position, Liz Truss, a perspective held by members of the British public.

And her tenure lasted a mere 46 days. Her only achievement was to crash the economy. So when, at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) last Wednesday, Truss declared that she was ‘a fighter, not a quitter‘ (in response to taunts from the Labour benches encouraging her to go), I guessed the writing was on the wall. She resigned the following day.

That brings me back to Boris Johnson. With the prospect of another election for leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister, Johnson quit his holiday in the Dominican Republic and headed back to the UK, expecting to be welcomed with open arms and save the Conservatives. They are currently about 30 percentage points behind Labour in nationwide polling, and were a General Election to be held today, could see themselves virtually wiped out.

A disheveled Boris Johnson seeking support after arriving back from the Caribbean last Sunday.

Writing in ConservativeHome on 23 October, editor and former MP Paul Goodman wrote: Johnson Derangement Syndrome consumes his enemies, who can see no good in him, and his friends, who can see no bad, or none that isn’t outweighed by his jokes, animal spirits and zest for life.

Barely three months since he was forced to resign, at least 60 MPs (including some Cabinet members who had sought his resignation) nailed their colors to the Johnson mast, but were soon found with egg on their faces.

By Sunday night, after having marched his troops to the top of the hill and then down again (just like the Grand Old Duke of York, according to one Conservative MP), Johnson withdrew from the race, leaving the election to just two candidates: Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons (the first to declare her candidacy) and Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Moments before the 2 pm deadline for nominations last Monday (24 October) Mordaunt withdrew, leaving the way open for a Sunak coronation. How bizarre! This made Sunak the fifth Conservative Prime Minister in six years.

Tories in disarray and riven by factions ranging from the European Research Group (ERG) on the right (and vehement Brexit supporters) to centrist (and perhaps more traditional) One Nation Tories.

And appropriate that Johnson was no longer involved. This was a Prime Minster who resigned in disgrace. The first Prime Minister to be convicted of a criminal offence (for breaking a Covid lockdown law that he introduced), and one who is still under investigation by the House of Commons privileges committee for having ‘misled’ the House, a convenient euphemism for having lied.

This is what the British public think of Boris Johnson.

Yesterday, Sunak assumed the reins of government, after having been appointed by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace.

King Charles III welcomes Rishi Sunak during an audience at Buckingham Palace, London, where he invited the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party to become Prime Minister and form a new government. Source: Creator: Aaron Chown Credit: PA; Copyright: PA Wire/PA Images

Speaking to the nation outside No 10 Downing Street afterwards, Sunak committed himself to lead a government that would earn the trust of the British people. He went on to say: This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.

That didn’t last long. By mid-afternoon he had reappointed Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, just six days after she had been sacked by Liz Truss ostensibly for breaking the Ministerial Code by using her personal email to send an official document. I’m sure there was more to it than that.

Braverman is an evil woman, gloating on camera that she had a dream—an obsession even—of seeing refugees/migrants to this country being flown to Rwanda under the asylum plan initiated by her equally-appalling predecessor at the Home Office, Priti Patel.

And bringing back losers like Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson even, and transferring former Health and Care Secretary Thérèse Coffey (who admitted to breaking the law about the illegal use of antibiotics) to the environment department, DEFRA.

So although Sunak’s words pointed his government in one direction, his actions suggest something rather different.

Yes, it’s remarkable that a colored son of immigrants, a Hindu, has become Prime Minister, and I think we can all applaud that. He’s one of the richest persons in the nation (with a portfolio worth around £750 million, and married to the daughter of one of India’s wealthiest individuals). I don’t begrudge him that wealth, if it was acquired legally and he pays his fair taxes. Whether, as many commentators have suggested, he just cannot relate to the man in the street, time will tell.

Some of his comments on the election trail earlier in the summer when he was up against Liz Truss for the post of Prime Minister, don’t bode well.

Given that a General Election won’t be held soon, I guess Sunak was the best option for the nation, to try and stabilize the economic crisis caused by Truss and Kwarteng. Sunak has kept Jeremy Hunt on as Chancellor. Commentators will have to be careful referring to a Sunak-Hunt partnership – although that may well be an apt description for both.


I’ve just watched today’s PMQs and Rishi Sunak’s first outing at the Despatch Box, grilled by Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, hopefully Prime Minister-in-waiting. It was interesting that some of the specific points I made earlier in this post were also raised by Starmer, and it’s clear that many are outraged at the re-appointment of Braverman as Home Secretary.

Come the General Election, will it be Starmer who emerges victorious? I hope so, although I think the general public has yet to warm to him, while recognizing qualities that I believe will make him a good Prime Minister. What a contrast to Johnson, Truss, and Sunak.

As with Joe Biden in the USA, ‘boring’ could be a welcome relief for a while. What we need is a General Election – now!


 

The carnival is over . . .

The music of The Seekers, an Australian group formed in 1962 in Melbourne, was a backdrop to my early teenage years.

L-R: Judith Durham, Bruce Woodley, Keith Potger, and Athol Guy

Comprising guitarists Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger, Athol Guy on bass, and female singer Judith Durham, The Seekers became one of Australia’s premier acts, and they enjoyed celebrity status abroad with hits like The Carnival is Over (released in 1965) and Georgy Girl (in 1966, the title song to the movie of the same name starring Lynn Redgrave, and nominated for an Oscar).

I hadn’t thought about The Seekers for many decades. They went out of fashion (outside of Australia, at least) and, in any case, my musical tastes had evolved. Then, a few months back I saw an item in the news that Judith Durham had died on 5 August at the age of 79. But beyond reading her obituary in The Guardian, I didn’t think any more about her or the group.

Until earlier this week. Just by chance I came across this video on YouTube of The Seekers in a farewell concert in 2014 (all members would have been in their early- to mid-70s by then), performing I Am Australian. Co-composed by Bruce Woodley in 1987 it has become, so I’ve come to understand, something of an anthem in Australia. Some have even been suggested it as an alternative national anthem.

Since I heard I Am Australian just a few days ago, it has become an ear worm. It’s a pleasant enough composition, somewhat saccharine—sentimental even—to my taste. But something has made it stick in my mind.

Just listen to Judith Durham’s vocals. In this performance her voice was as strong and pure as back in the 1960s. What a voice! And even more remarkable since she had an illness-induced lung/respiratory condition (bronchiectasis) from about the age of 5 that affected her breathing, and which contributed to her death this year.

Beautiful and powerful voices like Judith Durham’s don’t come along very often. And now that I have reconnected with The Seekers, so-to-speak, I can appreciate just how special she was as a singer.


 

On Kielder side . . .

Nestling beneath the England-Scotland border in the far west of Northumberland in the northeast of England, Kielder Water (owned by Northumbrian Water) is the largest man-made reservoir in England by capacity (Rutland Water has a greater surface area), holding 200 billion liters, and with a maximum depth of 52 meters.

It took six years (1975-1981) to construct the reservoir, which was first flooded in 1982. The River North Tyne is the primary inflow.

The Kielder Water dam.

The view east down the valley of the River North Tyne from the Kielder Water dam.

View from the dam across Kielder Water towards the England-Scotland border on the hills in the distance.

Kielder Water is surrounded by Kielder Forest, the largest woodland of its kind in northern Europe, managed by Forestry England (an executive agency sponsored by the Forestry Commission).

We have been waiting for a break in the weather to make a return visit. We first visited this area in 1998 during a touring holiday in Northumberland. And then again in December 2017 when we spent a couple of nights in one of the cabins (with our daughter Philippa, husband Andi, and grandsons Elvis and Felix) at the Leaplish Waterside Park along the western shore of the reservoir.

There are paths for walking and cycling right around Kielder Water.

Kielder Water on a cold and calm December morning, looking east towards the dam.


From our home in North Tyneside, it’s just under 60 miles by road to Kielder Water, taking in much of the awe-inspiring Northumberland landscape along the way. Talk about big skies!

We stopped at the Kielder dam to enjoy a welcome cup of coffee; our journey had taken a little over an hour. Then we crossed the dam to a viewpoint on the far side before heading back and continuing our trip north on the western shore.

Less than a mile from the dam we made a slight detour to view the reservoir from Elf Kirk Viewpoint (it’s marked on the map above). What a delight to see the Autumn colors beginning to shine through, particularly all the golden bracken.

The view northeast from Elf Kirk Viewpoint, looking over the small marina at Merlin Brae.

This was the view southeast from the northern end of Kielder Water, with the dam in the distance.


However, the main focus of our trip was the Kielder Forest Drive, a 12 mile toll road (£3) from Kielder village northeast to the A68 road (Newcastle-Jedburgh) just south of Byrness village.

About a mile in, we stopped to take a stroll up the hillside, which ended up being a three mile walk, and climbing maybe a couple of hundred feet. But the weather was glorious, and it was most enjoyable.

Here is a short video taken along the Forest Drive. It’s really remote, and on the day we visited virtually no other travelers apart from some Forestry England employees.

The rough gravel roads reminded me of traveling around Peru all those decades ago, fifty years come January. The Forest Drive certainly passes through some wild landscapes, made even more ethereal in those parts of the forest that have been felled but not yet replanted. A torn landscape. No cellphone signal.

And there was one object we saw on the hills marking the border between England and Scotland. A container with fire retardant fluid to combat any forest fires, perhaps? Or maybe a defence installation, and early warning system the Scots have installed to repel English encroachments once they gain independence. What do you think?

Fire prevention or defence?

Having reached the A68, it was a smooth and direct drive back down to the coast. Here are a couple of videos (below) traveling through glorious landscapes near Otterburn and Elsdon. Why not listen to Kathryn Tickell, an acclaimed exponent of the Northumbrian pipes (and fiddle); the first tune is Kielder Jock.

Northumberland never fails to inspire!


 

Plants deserve more than five minutes of fame . . .

I’m currently enjoying Frozen Planet II, broadcast on Sunday evenings on BBC1, presented and narrated by that icon of nature broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough.

It’s visually stunning, with so many awe-inspiring wildlife stories that film crews have taken months, years even, to capture sometimes for the very first time on camera. The cinematography itself is incredible — photographic technology has certainly come a long way since the first Frozen Planet series was broadcast in 2011.

Of course, Frozen Plant II is only the latest of a series of wildlife blockbusters produced by the BBC, but as with most of the others it is zoocentric. Where are the plants? The series title is, after all, Frozen Planet not Frozen Animals. Like so many nature programs, Frozen Planet II is basically plant blind.

Of course I am biased. After all, I trained (ever so many years ago) as a botanist.

Proud to be a botanist

The BBC has produced series about plants (although I’m not counting the various gardening ones), the most recent being The Green Planet, broadcast over five episodes at the beginning of 2022 (which I found somewhat disappointing). And the 1995 The Private Life of Plants, of course. Both narrated and presented by Attenborough.

On the whole, however, most nature programs focus on animals. Why? Well, as my friend and former colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in Chapter 1 of our 1986 book on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources:

To most people the word ‘conservation’ conjures up visions of lovable cuddly animals like giant pandas on the verge of extinction. Or it refers to the prevention of the mass slaughter of endangered whale species, under threat because of human’s greed or short-sightedness. Comparatively few people however, are moved to action or financial contribution by the idea of economically important plant species disappearing from the face of the earth. Precious orchids with undoubted aesthetic appeal, or the vegetation of the Amazonian rain forest, where sheer vastness cannot fail to impress, may attract deserved attention. But plant genetic resources [or plant biodiversity as a whole, I would hasten to add] make little impression on the heart even though their disappearance could herald famine on a greater scale than ever seen before, leading to ultimate world-wide disaster.

And there was a similar—and understandable— reaction (from a professor of molecular plant pathology at Imperial College) to a tweet I posted after seeing the latest Frozen Planet II episode last Sunday evening

Yes, gory indeed. Lots of predator-prey footage involving penguins, seals, and killer whales in various combinations. But nevertheless very interesting, showing learned and coordinated behavior by the whales to capture their prey.

It took skill (and courage) to film a puma stalking guanacos in Patagonia in the dark using high resolution night vision cameras. But there was no mention that pumas only survive in that hostile environment because of the guanacos. And the guanaco population is healthy only because there is sufficient vegetation to support their herds. What mechanisms to the plants employ to thrive in these harsh environments? I’m hopeful—but not holding my breath—that in next Sunday’s program, featuring the Northern Hemisphere boreal forests there will be more than lip-service paid to the botanical elements of this enormous ecosystem.

For many years, the British Antarctic Survey had a botanical section (that was actually based in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham where I studied) before it moved to BAS headquarters in Cambridge. Botanical research per se no longer features prominently on the BAS website. At least after a cursory search, I have to admit, nothing stood out. In the past BAS botanists combined lab work in Birmingham on the taxonomy, ecology, and physiology of grasses and mosses in particular with fieldwork in the south, especially on the sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia.

And thinking of that work reminds me of one segment of last Sunday’s program featuring the Antipodean Wandering Albatross that nests on Antipodes island (49°40′12″S 178°46′48″E). I’m sure that outcrop in the southern ocean would be less inviting were it not for the various tussocky grasses that provide shelter.

Having proposed to a BBC producer, many decades ago, the idea of a series based around the topic of plants and man, I still believe it could/would make rather interesting TV. So many topics to choose from, but here’s a few off the top of my head:

  • Swedish naturalist, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus)

    Making sense of plant diversity – taxonomy, famous taxonomists, plant collectors, Linnaeus, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook, Darwin.

  • The origins of agriculture – cradles of agriculture, archaeology, crop wild relatives, domestication, Vavilov.
  • The legacy of empire, colonization – slavery, cotton, tobacco, oil palm, bananas, sugarcane, and many more.
  • Farming on the edge – the Andes of South America (potatoes), hills of Southeast Asia (rice), among many.
  • Food security – genetic resources, genebanks, climate change, modern plant breeding, molecular biology, genetic modification, turbocharging photosynthesis, plants and pathogens.

It’s no wonder that applications to study plant sciences have declined. Plants (and the exciting times of plant science) just don’t receive the same airtime (apart from the multiplicity of gardening programs which I am discounting). I’m not suggesting for one moment that they should, but a little less plant blindness would be welcome.

I don’t believe there’s a single department of botany left in the UK universities (although some do still offer botany/plant sciences degree courses); they have all merged with other disciplines to form departments of schools of biological sciences. It’s also good to know that my alma mater, Birmingham, has increased the staff teaching and researching plants. In the USA many universities still retain healthy departments of botany or plant sciences.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Perhaps. I enjoyed a varied and successful career over almost 40 years after studying botany as an undergraduate, and gaining graduate degrees in genetic conservation and crop evolution. A career in agricultural research that took me to so many countries and interesting environments, natural and agricultural.

Let’s encourage a younger generation to take up the plant sciences because there are so many exciting developments to explore, and many central to our survival. Without interesting botanical air time, fewer perhaps are likely to be attracted in the first place.

Let’s remove the botanical blinkers. How about it, BBC?