Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (3) Becoming a genebanker in the 1990s, and beyond

My decision to leave a tenured position at the University of Birmingham in June 1991 was not made lightly. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, and I’d found my ‘home’ in the Plant Genetics Research Group following the reorganization of the School of Biological Sciences a couple of years earlier.

But I wasn’t particularly happy. Towards the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had become hostile to the university sector, demanding significant changes in the way they operated before acceding to any improvements in pay and conditions. Some of the changes then forced on the university system still bedevil it to this day.

I felt as though I was treading water, trying to keep my head above the surface. I had a significant teaching load, research was ticking along, PhD and MSc students were moving through the system, but still the university demanded more. So when an announcement of a new position as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines landed on my desk in September 1990, it certainly caught my interest. I discussed such a potential momentous change with Steph, and with a couple of colleagues at the university.

Nothing venture, nothing gained, I formally submitted an application to IRRI and, as they say, the rest is history. However, I never expected to spend the next 19 years in the Philippines.


Since 1971, I’d worked almost full time in various aspects of conservation and use of plant genetic resources. I’d collected potato germplasm in Peru and the Canary Islands while at Birmingham, learned the basics of potato agronomy and production, worked alongside farmers, helped train the next generation of genetic conservation specialists, and was familiar with the network of international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

What I had never done was manage a genebank or headed a department with tens of staff at all professional levels. Because the position in at IRRI involved both of these. The head would be expected to provide strategic leadership for GRC and its three component units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC), the genebank; the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER); and the Seed Health Unit (SHU). However, only the genebank would be under the day-to-day management of the GRC head. Both INGER and the SHU would be managed by project leaders, while being amalgamated into a single organizational unit, the Genetic Resources Center.

I was unable to join IRRI before 1 July 1991 due to teaching and examination commitments at the university that I was obliged to fulfill. Nevertheless, in April I represented IRRI at an important genetic resources meeting at FAO in Rome, where I first met the incoming Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (soon to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI), Dr Geoff Hawtin, with whom I’ve retained a friendship ever since.

On arrival at IRRI, I discovered that the SHU had been removed from GRC, a wise decision in my opinion, but not driven I eventually discerned by real ‘conflict of interest’ concerns, rather internal politics. However, given that the SHU was (and is) responsible, in coordination with the Philippines plant health authorities, to monitor all imports and exports of rice seeds at IRRI, it seemed prudential to me not to be seen as both ‘gamekeeper and poacher’, to coin a phrase. After all the daily business of the IRGC and INGER was movement of healthy seeds across borders.


Klaus Lampe

My focus was on the genebank, its management and role within an institute that itself was undergoing some significant changes, 30 years after it had been founded, under its fifth Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, who had hired me. He made it clear that the head of GRC would not only be expected to bring IRGC and INGER effectively into a single organizational unit, but also complete a ‘root and branch’ overhaul of the genebank’s operations and procedures, long overdue.

Since INGER had its own leader, an experienced rice breeder Dr DV Seshu, somewhat older than myself, I could leave the running of that network in his hands, and only concern myself with INGER within the context of the new GRC structure and personnel policies. Life was not easy. My INGER colleagues dragged their feet, and had to be ‘encouraged’ to accept the new GRC reality that reduced the freewheeling autonomy they had become accustomed to over the previous 20 years or so, on a budget of about USD1 million a year provided by the United Nations Development Program or UNDP.

When interviewing for the GRC position I had also queried why no germplasm research component had been considered as part of the job description. I made it clear that if I was considered for the position, I would expect to develop a research program on rice genetic resources. That indeed became the situation.


Once in post at IRRI, I asked lots of questions. For at least six months until the end of 1991, I made no decisions about changes in direction for the genebank until I better understood how it operated and what constraints it faced. I also had to size up the caliber of staff, and develop a plan for further staff recruitment. I did persuade IRRI management to increase resource allocation to the genebank, and we were then able to hire technical staff to support many time critical areas.

But one easy decision I did make early on was to change the name of the genebank.  As I’ve already mentioned, its name was the ‘International Rice Germplasm Center’, but it didn’t seem logical to place one center within another, IRGC in GRC. So we changed its name to the ‘International Rice Genebank’, while retaining the acronym IRGC (which was used for all accessions in the germplasm collection) to refer to International Rice Genebank Collection.

In various blog posts over the past year or so, I have written extensively about the genebank at IRRI, so I shall not repeat those details here, but provide a summary only.

I realized very quickly that each staff member had to have specific responsibilities and accountability. We needed a team of mutually-supportive professionals. In a recent email from one of my staff, he mentioned that the genebank today was reaping the harvest of the ‘seeds I’d sown’ 25 years ago. But, as I replied, one has to have good seeds to begin with. And the GRC staff were (and are) in my opinion quite exceptional.

In terms of seed management, we beefed up the procedures to regenerate and dry seeds, developed protocols for routine seed viability testing, and eliminated duplicate samples of genebank accessions that were stored in different locations, establishing an Active Collection (at +4ºC, or thereabouts) and a Base Collection (held at -18ºC). Pola de Guzman was made Genebank Manager, and Ato Reaño took responsibility for all field operations. Our aim was not only to improve the quality of seed being conserved in the genebank, but also to eliminate (in the shortest time possible) the large backlog of samples to be processed and added to the collection.

Dr Kameswara Rao (from IRRI’s sister center ICRISAT, based in Hyderabad, India) joined GRC to work on the relationship between seed quality and seed growing environment. He had received his PhD from the University of Reading, and this research had started as a collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis there. Rao’s work led to some significant changes to our seed production protocols.

Since I retired, I have been impressed to see how research on seed physiology and conservation, led by Dr Fiona Hay (now at Aarhus University in Denmark) has moved on yet again. Take a look at this story I posted in 2015.

Screen house space for the valuable wild species collection was doubled, and Soccie Almazan appointed as  wild species curator.

One of the most critical issues I had to address was data management, which was in quite a chaotic state, with data on the Asian rice samples (known as Oryza sativa), the African rices (O. glaberrima), and the remaining 20+ wild species managed in separate databases that could not ‘talk’ to each another. We needed a unified data system, handling all aspects of genebank management, germplasm regeneration, characterization and evaluation, and germplasm exchange. We spent about three years building that system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). It was complicated because data had been coded differently for the two cultivated and wild species, that I have written about here. That’s a genebank lesson that needs to be better appreciated in the genebank community. My colleagues Adel Alcantara, Vanji Guevarra, and Myrna Oliva did a splendid job, which was methodical and thorough.

In 1995 we released the first edition of a genebank operations manual for the International Rice Genebank, something that other genebanks have only recently got round to.

Our germplasm research focused on four areas:

  • seed conservation (with Richard Ellis at the University of Reading, among others);
  • the use of molecular markers to better manage and use the rice collection (with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich);
  • biosystematics of rice, concentrating on the closest wild relative species (led by Dr Bao-Rong Lu and supported by Yvette Naredo and the late Amy Juliano);
  • on farm conservation – a project led by French geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham and social anthropologists Dr Mauricio Bellon and Steve Morin.

At the beginning of the 1990s there were no genome data to support the molecular characterization of rice. Our work with molecular markers was among use these to study a germplasm collection. The research we published on association analysis is probably the first paper that showed this relationship between markers and morphological characteristics or traits.

In 1994, I developed a 5-year project proposal for almost USD3.3 million that we submitted for support to the Swiss Development Cooperation. The three project components included:

  • germplasm exploration (165 collecting missions in 22 countries), with about half of the germplasm collected in Laos; most of the collected germplasm was duplicated at that time in the International Rice Genebank;
  • training: 48 courses or on-the-job opportunities between 1995 and 1999 in 14 countries or at IRRI in Los Baños, for more than 670 national program staff;
  • on farm conservation to:
    • to increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that
      influence it, and its genetic implications;
    • to identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of
      rice genetic resources.

I was ably assisted in the day-to-day management of the project by my colleague Eves Loresto, a long-time employee at IRRI who sadly passed away a few years back.

When I joined IRRI in 1991 there were just under 79,000 rice samples in the genebank. Through the Swiss-funded project we increased the collection by more than 30%. Since I left the genebank in 2001 that number has increased to over 136,000 making it the largest collection of rice germplasm in the world.

We conducted training courses in many countries in Asia and Africa. The on-farm research was based in the Philippines, Vietnam, and eastern India. It was one of the first projects to bring together a population geneticist and a social anthropologist working side-by-side to understand how, why, and when farmers grew different rice varieties, and what incentives (if any) would induce them to continue to grow them.

The final report of this 5-year project can be read here. We released the report in 2000 on an interactive CD-ROM, including almost 1000 images taken at many of the project sites, training courses, or during germplasm exploration. However, the links in the report are not active on this blog.

During my 10 year tenure of GRC, I authored/coauthored 33 research papers on various aspects of rice genetic resources, 1 co-edited book, 14 book chapters, and 23 papers in the so-called ‘grey’ literature, as well as making 33 conference presentations. Check out all the details in this longer list, and there are links to PDF files for many of the publications.


In 1993 I was elected chair of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, and worked closely with Geoff Hawtin at IPGRI, and his deputy Masa Iwanaga (an old colleague from CIP), to develop the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program or SGRP. Under the auspices of the SGRP I organized a workshop in 1999 on the application of comparative genetics to genebank collections.

Professor John Barton

With the late John Barton, Professor of Law at Stanford University, we developed IRRI’s first policy on intellectual property rights focusing on the management, exchange and use of rice genetic resources. This was later expanded into a policy document covering all aspects of IRRI’s research.

The 1990s were a busy decade, germplasm-wise, at IRRI and in the wider genetic resources community. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force in 1993, and many countries were enacting their own legislation (such as Executive Order 247 in the Philippines in 1995) governing access to and use sovereign genetic resources. It’s remarkable therefore that we were able to accomplish so much collecting between 1995 and 2000, and that national programs had trust in the IRG to safely conserve duplicate samples from national collections.

Ron Cantrell

All good things come to an end, and in January 2001 I was asked by then Director General Ron Cantrell to leave GRC and become the institute’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (that became Communications two years later as I took on line management responsibility for Communication and Publications Services, IT, and the library). On 30 April, I said ‘goodbye’ to my GRC colleagues to move to my new office across the IRRI campus, although I kept a watching brief over GRC for the next year until my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, arrived in Los Baños.

Listen to Ruaraidh and his staff talking about the genebank.


So, after a decade with GRC I moved into IRRI’s senior management team and set about bringing a modicum of rationale to the institute’s resource mobilization initiatives, and management of its overall research project portfolio. I described here how it all started. The staff I was able to recruit were outstanding. Running DPPC was a bit like running a genebank: there were many individual processes and procedures to manage the various research projects, report back to donors, submit grant proposals and the like. Research projects were like ‘genebank accessions’ – all tied together by an efficient data management system that we built in an initiative led by Eric Clutario (seen standing on the left below next to me).

From my DPPC vantage point, it was interesting to watch Ruaraidh take GRC to the next level, adding a new cold storage room, and using bar-coding to label all seed packets, a great addition to the data management effort. With Ken McNally’s genomics research, IRRI has been at the forefront of studies to explore the diversity of genetic diversity in germplasm collections.

Last October, the International Rice Genebank was the first to receive in-perpetuity funding from the Crop Trust. I’d like to think that the significant changes we made in the 1990s to the genebank and management of rice germplasm kept IRRI ahead of the curve, and contributed to its selection for this funding.

I completed a few publications during this period, and finally retired from IRRI at the end of April 2010. Since retirement I have co-edited a second book on climate change and genetic resources, led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program, and was honored by HM The Queen as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for my work at IRRI.

So, as 2018 draws to a close, I can look back on almost 50 years involvement in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. What an interesting—and fulfilling—journey it has been.


 

 

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (2) Training the next generation of specialists in the 1980s

When, in the mid- to late-60s, Jack Hawkes was planning a one-year MSc course, Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR), at the University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany), Sir Otto Frankel (that doyen of the genetic resources movement) predicted that the course would probably have a lifetime of just 20 years, at most. By then, he assumed, all the persons who needed such training would have passed through the university’s doors. Job done! Well, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

The first cohort of four students graduated in September 1970, when I (and four others) arrived at the university to begin our careers in plant genetic resources. In 1989, the course celebrated its 20th anniversary. But there was still a demand, and Birmingham would continue to offer graduate training (and short course modules) in genetic resources for the next 15 or so years before dwindling applications and staff retirements made the course no longer viable.

Over its lifetime, I guess at least 500 MSc and Short Course students from more than 100 countries received their training in genetic conservation and use. So, for many years, the University of Birmingham lay at the heart of the growing genetic resources movement, and played a pivotal role in ensuring that national programs worldwide had the trained personnel to set up and sustain genetic conservation of local crops and wild species. Many Birmingham graduates went on to lead national genetic resources programs, as evidenced by the number who attended the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources convened by FAO in Leipzig in June 1996.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left. Geoff Hawtin, then Director General of IPGRI is fourth from the right (On the back row), and Lyndsey Withers (who gave a course on in vitro conservation to Birmingham students) is second from the right on the front row (standing in between Liz Matos (from Angola) on her left, and the late Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea).


In April 1981, I joined that training effort as a faculty member at the university. For the previous eight years, I had been working for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica. Around September 1980 (a couple months before I left Costa Rica to return to Lima and my next assignment with CIP), I was made aware that a Lectureship had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed) to contribute to the MSc course curriculum.

Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 after he reached the mandatory retirement age (for full professors) of 67. He persuaded the university to create a lectureship in his department to cover some of the important topics that he would vacate, primarily in crop diversity and evolution.

After my arrival in Birmingham, I didn’t have any specific duties for first four months. With the intake of the 1981-82 cohort, however, it was ‘full steam ahead’ and my teaching load remained much the same for the next decade. My teaching focused on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm exploration, and agricultural systems, although I made some small contributions to other topics as well.

I also took on the role of Short Course Tutor for those who came to study on one or both of the semester modules (about 12 weeks each).

Since its inception in 1969, the overall structure of the course remained much the same, with about nine months of theory, followed by written examinations. The curriculum varied to some degree over the lifetime of the course, as did the content as new biology opened new opportunities to study, conserve, and use genetic resources.

Following the examinations, all students completed a three-month research project and submitted a dissertation around the middle of September, which was examined by an external examiner. The first external examiner, from 1970-1972, was Professor Norman Simmonds, then Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, and a widely respected plant breeder and potato and banana expert.

Financial support for students came from a variety of sources. The year after I graduated, the course was recognized by one of the UK research councils (I don’t remember which) for studentship support, and annually three or four British students were funded in this way through the 1970s and 80s. By the late 1970s, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) funded many of the students coming from overseas, and had also agreed an annual grant to the department that, among other aspects, funded a lectureship in seed physiology and conservation (held by Dr Pauline Mumford). A few students were self-funded.

Here are some of the classes from 1978 to 1988; names of students can be found in this file. Do you recognize anyone?

L: Class of 1978 | R: Class of 1979

L: Class of 1984 | R: Class of 1985

L: Class of 1986 | Class of 1987

L: Class of 1988 | R: Short Course participants, Autumn semester 1987

The first group of students that I had direct contact with, in the autumn of 1981, came from Bangladesh, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, and Uruguay. After nearly 40 years I can’t remember all their names, unfortunately.

The MSc class of 1982: L-R: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), ?? (Uruguay), Rainer Freund (Germany), Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Dr Pauline Mumford (IBPGR-funded lecturer), ?? (Bangladesh), ?? (Bangladesh), Maria Texeira (Portugal), ?? (Indonesia).

Over the decade I remained at Birmingham, I must have supervised the dissertation projects of about 20-25 students, quite an intensive commitment during the summer months. Since my main interest was crop diversity and biosystematics, several students ran projects on potatoes and Lathyrus. I curated the Hawkes collection of wild potato species, and had also assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species from different countries and diverse environments. Some students wanted to work on crops and species important in their countries and, whenever possible, we tried to accommodate their interests. Even with glasshouse facilities it was not always possible to grow many tropical species at Birmingham². In any case, the important issue was for students to gain experience in designing and executing projects, and evaluating germplasm effectively. Two students from Uganda for example, studied the resistance of wild potatoes from Bolivia to the potato cyst nematode, in collaboration with the Nematology Department at Rothamsted Experiment Station.

Several students stayed on to complete PhD degrees under my supervision, or jointly supervised with my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (who was the MSc Course Tutor), and I have written more about that here.

Immediately on joining the department in 1981, Jack asked me to take on the supervision of two of his students, Lynne Woodwards and Adi Damania who were half way through their research. Lynne competed her study of the non-blackening trait in a tetraploid (2n=4x=48 chromosomes) wild potato species from Mexico, Solanum hjertingii in 1982. Adi split his time between Birmingham and the Germplasm Institute in Bari, Italy, where he was co-supervised by Professor Enrico Porceddu, studying barley and wheat landraces from Nepal and Yemen. One of the methods he used was the separation of seed proteins using gel electrophoresis. His PhD was completed in 1983.

Lynne’s research on Solanum hjertingii was continued by Ian Gubb, in collaboration with the Institute of Food Research in Norwich.

Two Peruvian students, Rene Chavez (1978) and Carlos Arbizu (1979) completed their PhD theses in 1984 and 1990 respectively. They did all their experimental work at CIP in Lima, studying wide crosses in potato breeding, and wild potatoes as sources of virus resistance.

Malaysian student Ghani Yunus (1982) returned to Birmingham around 1986 to commence his PhD and continued his study of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) that he began for his MSc dissertation.


While the MSc course comprised my main teaching load, I also had some undergraduate teaching commitments. I did no First Year teaching, thank goodness! In the Summer Semester I had a 50% commitment to a Flowering Plant Taxonomy module as part of the Second Year Plant Biology stream. I also gave half a dozen lectures on agricultural systems as part of a Second Year Common Course attended by all Biological Sciences students, and I eventually became chair of that course.

With Brian, we offered a Third (Final) Year option in conservation and use of genetic resources under the Plant Biology degree. I guess during the 1980s some 40 students (maybe more) chose that option. The five-week module comprised about 20-25 lectures, and each student also had to undertake an practical project as well. It was quite a challenge to devise and supervise so many ‘doable’ projects during such a short period.


While all this was going on, I also had a couple of research projects on potatoes. The first, on true potato seed, was in collaboration with CIP in Peru and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. Over the project’s five-year life, I traveled to Lima at least once a year. This also gave me an opportunity to check on progress of my PhD students there.

In another project (with Brian) funded by industry, we investigated the opportunity for using somaclonal variation to identify genotypes resistant to low temperature sweetening in potatoes. The research had an important spin-off however for the genetic conservation of vegetatively-propagated crops like potatoes, as we demonstrated that genetic changes do occur during in vitro or tissue culture.

Knowing of my annual trips to Peru, the chocolate and confectionery manufacturers in the UK asked me to scope the possibility of establishing a field genebank in Peru of cacao (cocoa) trees in the northeast of the country. The industry had funded a project like this in Ecuador, and wanted to replicate it in Peru. Regrettably, the security situation deteriorated markedly in Peru (due to the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso terrorist group), and the project never went ahead.


Brian and I collaborated a good deal during the 1980s, in teaching, research, and publishing.

Around 1983 he and I had the idea of writing a short general text about genetic resources and their conservation. As far as we could determine there were no books of this nature suitable for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Having approached the publisher Edward Arnold, we set about putting our ideas down on paper. The book appeared in 1986, with a print run of 3000, which quickly sold out. After Edward Arnold was taken over by Cambridge University Press, our modest volume was re-issued in a digitally printed version in 2010.

In 1988, we organized the first International Workshop on Plant Genetic Resources at Birmingham, on in situ conservation. The topic of the second two-day workshop, in April 1989, focused on climate change and genetic resources. We were ahead of our time! Proceedings from the workshop were published by Belhaven Press in 1990. It was a theme that my co-editors and I returned to in 2014, published by CAB International.


Around 1989, however, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with university life, and had begun to think about seeking other opportunities, although none seemed to come along. Until September 1990, that is. One morning, I received in the mail a copy of a recruitment announcement for Head of the Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. To this day I have no idea who sent me this announcement, as there was no cover note.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to submit my application. After all, IRRI was a sister center of CIP, and I was very familiar with the international agricultural research centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Personally, I knew it would be a huge opportunity, but also a challenge for Steph and our two daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9). But apply I did, and went for an interview at the beginning of January 1991, learning three weeks later that I was the preferred candidate of three interviewed. All three of us were ex-Birmingham MSc and PhD, having completed our theses under the supervision of Jack Hawkes. My ‘rivals’ were managing genebanks in the UK and Nigeria. I had no genebank experience per se.

I was about to become a genebanker, but I couldn’t join the institute quite as early as IRRI management desired. I still had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill for that academic year, which would not be finished until the end of June. Nevertheless, IRRI did ask me to represent the institute at a meeting in April of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, the first of many that I would attend over the next decade.

Friday 28 June was my last day at the university. Two days later I was on my way to Manila, to open the next chapter of my genetic resources adventure.


¹ Around 1990, IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and later, Bioversity International, expanding its headquarters in Rome.

² One of the students in my 1970-71 class, Folu Ogbe from Nigeria, undertook a project on West African rice and part of one glasshouse was converted to a ‘rice paddy’!

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (1) Starting out in South America in the 1970s

Nikolai Vavilov

Russian geneticist and plant breeder Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) is a hero of mine. He died, a Soviet prisoner, five years before I was born.

Until I began my graduate studies in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (i.e., crops and their wild relatives) almost 50 years ago in September 1970, his name was unknown to me. Nevertheless, Vavilov’s prodigious publications influenced the career I subsequently forged for myself in genetic conservation.

Jack Hawkes

At the same time I was equally influenced by my mentor and PhD supervisor Professor Jack Hawkes, at Birmingham, who met Vavilov in St Petersburg in 1938.

Vavilov undoubtedly laid the foundations for the discipline of genetic resources —the collection, conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). It’s not for nothing that he is widely regarded as the Father of Plant Genetic Resources.

Almost 76 years on from his death, we now understand much more about the genetic diversity of crops than we ever dreamed possible, even as recently as the turn of the Millennium, thanks to developments in molecular biology and genomics. The sequencing of crop genomes (which seems to get cheaper and easier by the day) opens up significant opportunities for not only understanding how diversity is distributed among crops and species, but how it functions and can be used to breed new crop varieties that will feed a growing world population struggling under the threat of environmental challenges such as climate change.

These tools were not available to Vavilov. He used his considerable intellect and powers of observation to understand the diversity of many crop species (and their wild relatives) that he and his associates collected around the world. Which student of genetic resources can fail to be impressed by Vavilov’s theories on the origins of crops and how they varied among regions.

In my own small way, I followed in Vavilov’s footsteps for the next 40 years. I can’t deny that I was fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time. I had some of the best connections. I met some of the leading lights such as Sir Otto Frankel, Erna Bennett, and Jack Harlan, to name just three. I became involved in genetic conservation just as the world was beginning to take notice.


Knowing of my ambition to work overseas (particularly in South America), Jack Hawkes had me in mind in early 1971 when asked by Dr Richard Sawyer, the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru) to propose someone to join the newly-founded center to curate the center’s collection of Andean potato varieties. This would be just a one-year appointment while a Peruvian scientist received MSc training at Birmingham. Once I completed the MSc training in the autumn of 1971, I had some of the expertise and skills needed for that task, but lacked practical experience. I was all set to get on the plane. However, my recruitment to CIP was delayed until January 1973 and I had, in the interim, commenced a PhD project.

I embarked on a career in international agricultural research for development almost by serendipity. One year became a lifetime. The conservation and use of plant genetic resources became the focus of my work in two international agricultural research centers (CIP and IRRI) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and during the 1980s at the University of Birmingham.


My first interest were grain legumes (beans, peas, etc.), and I completed my MSc dissertation studying the diversity and origin of the lentil, Lens culinaris whose origin, in 1970, was largely speculation.

Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams, the MSc Course tutor, supervised my dissertation. He left Birmingham around 1977 to become the head of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome, that in turn became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and continues today as Bioversity International.

Joe Smartt

I guess that interest in legume species had been sparked by Joe Smartt at the University of Southampton, who taught me genetics and encouraged me in the first instance to apply for a place to study at Birmingham in 1970.

But the cold reality (after I’d completed my MSc in the autumn of 1971) was that continuing on to a PhD on lentils was never going to be funded. So, when offered the opportunity to work in South America, I turned my allegiance to potatoes and, having just turned 24, joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist.

From the outset, it was agreed that my PhD research project, studying the diversity and origin, and breeding relationships of a group of triploid (with three sets of chromosomes) potato varieties that were known scientifically as Solanum x chaucha, would be my main contribution to the center’s research program. But (and this was no hardship) I also had to take time each year to travel round Peru and collect local varieties of potatoes to add to CIP’s germplasm collection.

I explored the northern departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague Zósimo Huamán) in May 1973, and Cajamarca (on my own with a driver) a year later. Each trip lasted almost a month. I don’t recall how many new samples these trips added to CIP’s growing germplasm collection, just a couple of hundred at most.

Collecting in Ancash with Zosimo Huaman in May 1973.

Collecting potatoes from a farmer in Cajamarca, northern Peru in May 1974 (L); and getting ready to ride off to a nearby village, just north of Cuzco, in February 1974 (R).

In February 1974, I spent a couple of weeks in the south of Peru, in the department of Puno, studying the dynamics of potato cultivation on terraces in the village of Cuyo-Cuyo.

Potato terraces at Cuyo Cuyo in Puno, southern Peru.

I made just one short trip with Jack Hawkes (and another CIP colleague, Juan Landeo) to collect wild potatoes in central Peru (Depts. of Cerro de Pasco, Huánuco, and Lima). It was fascinating to watch ‘the master’ at work. After all, Jack had been collecting wild potatoes the length of the Americas since 1939, and instinctively knew where to find them. Knowing their ecological preferences, he could almost ‘smell out’ each species.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima, early 1975.

My research (and Zósimo’s) contributed to a better understanding of potato diversity in the germplasm collection, and the identification of duplicate clones. During the 1980s the size of the collection maintained as tubers was reduced, while seeds (often referred to as true potato seed, or TPS) was collected for most samples.

Potato varieties (representative ‘morphotypes’) of Solanum x chaucha that formed part of my PhD study. L-R, first row: Duraznillo, Huayro, Garhuash Shuito, Puca Shuito, Yana Shuito L-R, second row: Komar Ñahuichi, Pishpita, Surimana, Piña, Manzana, Morhuarma L-R, third row: Tarmeña, Ccusi, Yuracc Incalo L-R, fourth row: Collo, Rucunag, Hayaparara, Rodeñas

Roger Rowe

Dr Roger Rowe was my department head at CIP, and he became my ‘local’ PhD co-supervisor. A maize geneticist by training, Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Department of Breeding & Genetics. Immediately prior to joining CIP, he led the USDA’s Inter-Regional Potato Introduction Project IR-1(now National Research Support Program-6, NRSP-6) at the Potato Introduction Station in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

Although CIP’s headquarters is at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima, much of my work was carried out in Huancayo, a six hour drive winding up through the Andes, where CIP established its highland field station. This is where we annually grew the potato collection.

Aerial view of the potato germplasm collection at the San Lorenzo station of CIP, near Huancayo in the Mantaro Valley, central Peru, in the mid-1970s.

During the main growing season, from about mid-November to late April  (coinciding with the seasonal rainfall), I’d spend much of every week in Huancayo, making crosses and evaluating different varieties for morphological variation. This is where I learned not only all the practical aspects of conservation of a vegetatively-propagated crop, and many of the phytosanitary implications therein, but I also learned how to grow a crop of potatoes. Then back in Lima, I studied the variation in tuber proteins using a tool called polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (that, I guess, is hardly used any more) by separating these proteins across a gel concentration gradient, as shown diagrammatically in the so-called electrophoregrams below. Compared to what we can achieve today using a range of molecular markers, this technique was really rather crude.

Jack Hawkes visited CIP two or three times while I was working in Lima, and we would walk around the germplasm collection in Huancayo, discussing different aspects of my research, the potato varieties I was studying, and the results of the various crossing experiments.

With Jack Hawkes in the germplasm collection in Huancayo in January 1975 (L); and (R), discussing aspects of my research with Carlos Ochoa in a screenhouse at CIP in La Molina (in mid-1973).

I was also fortunate (although I realized it less at the time) to have another potato expert to hand: Professor Carlos Ochoa, who joined CIP (from the National Agrarian University across the road from CIP) as Head of Taxonomy.

Well, three years passed all too quickly, and by the end of May 1975, Steph and I were back in Birmingham for a few months while I wrote up and defended my dissertation. This was all done and dusted by the end of October that year, and the PhD was conferred at a congregation held at the university in December.

With Jack Hawkes (L) and Trevor Williams (R) after the degree congregation on 12 December 1975 at the University of Birmingham.

With that, the first chapter in my genetic resources career came to a close. But there was much more in store . . .


I remained with CIP for the next five years, but not in Lima. Richard Sawyer asked me to join the center’s Regional Research Program (formerly Outreach Program), initially as a post-doctoral fellow, the first to be based outside headquarters. Thus, in April 1976 (only 27 years old) I was posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica (based at a regional research center, CATIE) to set up a research project aimed at adapting potatoes to warm, humid conditions of the tropics. A year later I was asked to lead the regional program that covered Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

CATIE had its own germplasm collections, and just after I arrived there, a German-funded project, headed by Costarrican scientist Dr Jorge León, was initiated to strengthen the ongoing work on cacao, coffee, and pejibaye or peach palm, and other species. Among the young scientists assigned to that project was Jan Engels, who later moved to Bioversity International in Rome (formerly IBPGR, then IPGRI), with whom I have remained in contact all these years and published together. So although I was not directly involved in genetic conservation at this time, I still had the opportunity to observe, discuss and learn about crops that had been beyond my immediate experience.

It wasn’t long before my own work took a dramatically different turn. In July 1977, in the process of evaluating around 100 potato varieties and clones (from a collection maintained in Toluca, Mexico) for heat adaptation (no potatoes had ever been grown in Turrialba before), my potato plots were affected by an insidious disease called bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum).

(L) Potato plants showing typical symptoms of bacterial wilt. (R) An infected tuber exuding the bacterium in its vascular system.

Turrialba soon became a ‘hot spot’ for evaluating potato germplasm for resistance against bacterial disease, and this and some agronomic aspects of bacterial wilt control became the focus of much of my research over the next four years. I earlier wrote about this work in more detail.

This bacterial wilt work gave me a good grounding in how to carefully evaluate germplasm, and we went on to look at resistance to late blight disease (caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans – the pathogen that caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and which continues to be a scourge of potato production worldwide), and the viruses PVX, PVY, and PLRV.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my work at this time was the development and testing of rapid multiplication techniques, so important to bulk up healthy seed of this crop.

My good friend and seed production specialist colleague Jim Bryan spent a year with me in Costa Rica on this project.

Throughout this period I was, of course, working more on the production side, learning about the issues that farmers, especially small farmers, face on a daily basis. It gave me an appreciation of how the effective use of genetic resources can raise the welfare of farmers and their families through the release of higher productivity varieties, among others.

I suppose one activity that particularly helped me to hone my management skills was the setting up of PRECODEPA in 1978, a regional cooperative potato project involving six countries, from Mexico to Panama and the Dominican Republic. Funded by the Swiss, I had to coordinate and support research and production activities in a range of national agricultural research institutes. It was, I believe, the first consortium set up in the CGIAR, and became a model for other centers to follow.

I should add that PRECODEPA went from strength to strength. It continued for at least 25 years, funded throughout by the Swiss, and expanding to include other countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

However, by the end of 1980 I felt that I had personally achieved in Costa Rica and the region as much as I had hoped for and could be expected; it was time for someone else to take the reins. In any case, I was looking for a new challenge, and moved back to Lima (38 years ago today) to discuss options with CIP management.

It seemed I would be headed for pastures new, the southern cone of South America perhaps, even the Far East in the Philippines. But fate stepped in, and at the end of March 1981, Steph, daughter Hannah (almost three) and I were on our way back to the UK. To Birmingham in fact, where I had accepted a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology.


The subsequent decade at Birmingham opened up a whole new set of genetic resources opportunities . . .

With The Beatles . . .

Last weekend, Steph and I spent a couple of days in Liverpool where, in the 1960s, there was an explosion of musical talent—the ‘Mersey Sound‘ (a somewhat patronizing video)—that had been influenced by and built on the late 1950s skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan, among others.

The greatest among greats to emerge from the ‘Mersey Sound’ have to be The Beatles – Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon.

It was my 70th birthday on the 18th and, in celebration, we planned this special trip to Liverpool to take in The Beatles’ Childhood Homes and The Beatles Story, among other sights. A full album of photos can be viewed here.

We originally intended to drive to Liverpool. Not difficult in itself, you might imagine: a mere 109 miles. But as most of that journey is along the notorious M6 motorway, potentially it would have been 109 miles of traffic hassle, and long stretches of roadworks. And although the weather has been quite mild recently, November can be foggy and frosty. These were the points we considered when finalizing our travel plans in late August. So we opted to travel by rail from Bromsgrove to Liverpool-Lime Street (via Birmingham New Street).

As it turned out, we had a weekend of the most wonderful weather—clear skies, bright and sunny. No rain whatsoever.

Although our train from Birmingham departed about 20 minutes late, we still arrived to Lime Street before 13:00, and after a 20 minute walk to the hotel, we were out and about exploring well before 14:00.

Our hotel was the 4-star Jurys Inn, located right on the Liverpool Waterfront, just across the road from the Royal Albert Dock, home to The Beatles Story. It was also starting point for the National Trust tour of The Beatles’ Childhood Homes. Right beside the hotel are the 60 m (196 ft) Wheel of Liverpool, the Echo Arena, and convention centre.

We used Emirates Airlines airmiles (Rocketmiles) that were about to expire and a small cash supplement to pay for the hotel.


To begin with, let me take you back to late June 1967.

Just a month earlier, The Beatles had released their eighth and iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Little did I realize then that I’d be regularly visiting the home of The Beatles in the coming weeks.

Having just left school, I was waiting for my exam results and hoping I’d done well enough to secure a coveted place to study botany and geography, from October, at The University of Southampton. As I couldn’t spend the summer kicking my heels around my parent’s home, I found a temporary job for the next couple of months working for a local Leek company, Adams Butter (which I’ve written about elsewhere), as driver’s mate on the company’s fleet of trucks.

Adams Butter took raw, unsalted butter (mostly from Australia and New Zealand), blended and packed it into household packs, and distributed it to supermarkets and other retail outlets all over the country. Having emptied a truck of 25 tons of butter (in 26lb boxes), we’d head off to the nearest port to load up with another 25 tons of frozen butter, in 56lb boxes, to transport back to the dairy in Leek.

That first week saw me in Liverpool twice, and over eight or nine weeks or so, I must have gone back there a dozen times or more. But I haven’t been back there since, apart from a half-day visit around 2000, when I was invited to give a seminar at The University of Liverpool. Until last weekend, that is.

Fifty years on and Liverpool is a transformed city. Gone is the frenetic activity of the docks; there were no containers then. Once the River Mersey and port were bustling with ships from all over the world; a huge labor force of dockers manhandled produce off the ships. By the 1980s many of the docks along the Liverpool Waterfront were closed, and warehouses were derelict.

Now the Waterfront is a World Heritage Site, a place for everyone to enjoy. And also home to The Beatles Story, Tate Liverpool, the Museum of Liverpool, shops, cafes, and restaurants. During our visit, there were funfair rides set up along the Waterfront, as well as an ice rink, and some sections of the German market, all part of Liverpool’s run up to Christmas.


Our tour of the Beatles’ Childhood Homes started at 10:00 when the National Trust driver, Joe, met us in the lobby of Jurys Inn. We were an international party of just 13 persons (5 UK, 1 Irish, I Czech, I French, 1 Maltese, 1 Australian, and 3 Malaysian). The drive to the first property, John Lennon’s home, took just over 15 minutes. Once we were all strapped in and ready for the off, Joe turned on the music: Love Me Do, and it was Beatles songs all throughout the tour. What a way to start! And, as it turned out, three quite emotional hours.

‘Mendips’. 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton (a desirable suburb of Liverpool) is a 1930s semi-detached house (that has retained many of its original design features). John was born in October 1940. When his mother Julia separated from father Alfred in 1945, John went to live with Julia’s oldest sister Mimi and her husband George at ‘Mendips’. It was felt that a two-room flat in a rough part of the city near the cathedral was not a suitable place to raise a young boy.

It seems that John had limited contact with Julia as he was growing up. But by the time he was 17 (in 1958), he had begun to see her more regularly. Tragically, however, she was hit by a car on Menlove Avenue, and died from her injuries. She was just 44.I have no photographs inside the house. As with the McCartney home, visitors’ cameras and mobile phones are locked away for the duration of their visit. It’s both for security and copyright reasons.

It was a powerful and emotional experience walking round John’s childhood home. I could feel a tear or two welling up every now and then. There were his school reports and lots of photos; also his bedroom where he wrote some of his early songs. And the porch where he and Paul tried out some of their songs. The National Trust guide encouraged us to go into the porch to test the acoustics. I didn’t sing but just clapped my hands; the acoustics were excellent. Apparently Paul has said he’d like to record some songs there.

John bought a bungalow for Aunt Mimi in Sandbanks in Dorset. ‘Mendips’ was never modernized after Aunt Mimi moved out. When the house came on the market in 2002, it was purchased by Yoko Ono and donated to the National Trust. The letter that Yoko Ono wrote to the National Trust explaining why she had bought the house is framed and lies on John’s bed.

On another level it was emotional for Steph in particular. So much of the layout and features of ‘Mendips’ reminded her of 30 Hillway, her parents’ home in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. That was a 1930s detached house.

We came away from ‘Mendips’ after an hour, to head to the McCartney home at 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, just over a mile west from John’s house. John would visit Paul on his bicycle, cutting across the Allerton Manor Golf Club.

20 Forthlin Road is a terraced, former council house, to which the McCartney family, dad Jim, mother Mary, Paul, and younger brother Mike (Mike McGear) moved in 1956, from their home in the Speke. Forthlin Road was a step up.

Initially Paul and Mike shared a bedroom, but Paul eventually moved into a small front bedroom on his own. He continued to live there until 1963, after the other Beatles had already moved to London, and the band were already becoming a phenomenon.

Sitting in the front parlor, our guide Sylvia told us about how the McCartney family would make music together around the piano (I’m not sure if the piano there today is the original, but I think so; I tinkled the ivories), and singing in harmony. So when The Beatles started recording, singing in harmony with John was second nature to Paul (just watch the We Can Work It Out video at the end of this post). Paul originally played the trumpet, but dropped it to learn the guitar – which he had to modify and re-string because he is left-handed.

Paul’s mother Mary passed away from cancer in 1956, aged 47. Paul wrote Let It Be as a tribute to his mother.Dad Jim raised the boys with the help of relatives including Uncle Albert (remembered on Paul and Linda McCartney’s album Ram, released in 1971). Paul bought his father a house across the Mersey on the Wirral to which he retired; Paul still owns the house and uses it when visiting Liverpool.

Around No 20 there are many original and iconic photos of Paul and John writing and singing their songs in the same front parlor where we were sitting, taken by Paul’s brother Mike (who has the copyright, this being the reason why photography is not permitted inside).

Then after an hour there, we traveled back to Jurys Inn, to the accompaniment of more Beatles songs. What a marvellous way to spend the morning of my 70th birthday!


After a reviving cup of tea back at the hotel, we crossed the road to visit The Beatles Story exhibition. The story of The Beatles is told there through displays of memorabilia and photographs; it opened in May 1990.

From an early date until sometime in the past year, one particular display near the entrance explained the influence of the 1950s skiffle movement on The Beatles’ early musical careers. John Lennon played in a skiffle group called The Quarrymen which Paul McCartney and George Harrison later joined.

The display in question showed two boys, my elder brother Ed and me, playing guitar and tea-chest bass, entertaining our mother and two friends, Geoff and Susan Sharratt. That display has now been taken down, so I never got to see myself in The Beatles Story. But here’s my great-nephew Sammy standing in front of the display a year or so back.

The exhibition takes you through the band’s time in Hamburg at the turn of the sixties, their ‘residence’ at The Cavern, and onwards through their worldwide success.

There are so many iconic things to see and read about. It’s quite overwhelming. Here’s just a small selection; you can also see many more photos in the album I mentioned earlier.


We returned home to Bromsgrove just after noon on Monday. But before that, we took a 50 minute river cruise on the Mersey ferry, Royal Iris, from the Pier Head Terminal, across to the Seacombe Terminal on the Wirral, and then to Woodside Terminal at Birkenhead, before returning to the Pier Head. Here’s a short video I made, with Gerry & The Pacemakers (courtesy of a YouTube video) providing the appropriate soundtrack.

It was a relaxing way to enjoy the Liverpool skyline. And the weather still kept fine for us even though the cloud built up later, and there was some rain before we departed from Liverpool.

Then it was a brisk walk back to Lime Street in time to catch our train just after 12:30.

We arrived home, on time, just after 15:30, and there was a very nice surprise waiting. My bank had sent me a bottle of Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut champagne for my 70th! What a treat to end a great weekend. I can’t stop singing all those Beatles songs.

But there is a postscript to this Beatles adventure . . .


Fifty years ago today, 22 November, The Beatles released their ninth studio album, The Beatlesalso known as the White Album.

Many of the songs that appeared on this album (and some on Abbey Road in 1969) were penned while The Beatles were experimenting with transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh, India.

In 1968 (just a couple of months into my second year at the University of Southampton), I celebrated my 20th birthday by purchasing a copy of the White Album, which I had pre-ordered some weeks earlier. I believe I was the first person in our student residence, South Stoneham House, to have a copy. Word soon got around and it wasn’t long before my room on the 13th floor became the focus of White Album sessions.

This is how the album was reviewed in 1968; here is a current reappraisal. A re-mastered version of the album was released just over a week ago.

You can hear more about Giles Martin’s work on the album here.

What’s your favorite track? There are so many to choose from. But if I had to name just one, it has to be George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, on which Eric Clapton was invited by George to play a solo.

Anyway, enjoy this ethereal version that was released on Love – a 2006 remix album (by George Martin and son Giles) that accompanied a Cirque du Soleil show of the same name.

In the ultimate tribute to George Harrison, here is a multi-talented band, led by two of Harrison’s Traveling Wilburys band mates, Jeff Lynne and the late Tom Petty (and including Harrison’s son Dhani), interpreting this song; there’s a superb guitar solo from Prince.


The first Beatles vinyl I bought was Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. I remember that quite distinctly, because I held a small Christmas party for school friends in Leek, and Rubber Soul was the soul of that party.

I never owned the early albums. I didn’t really like their music until A Hard Day’s Night was released in 1964. After Rubber Soul, I acquired all the other albums on vinyl, but these were lost in a burglary in 1978 when we lived in Turrialba, Costa Rica. I replaced them on CD in the 1990s.

Compared to modern bands, look at how prolific The Beatles were, given the short periods between release dates of their albums. These are the albums I currently have.

Released in July 1964 and August 1965

Released in December 1965 and August 1966

Released in May 1967 and November 1967

Released in November 1968 and January 1969

Released in September 1969 and May 1970

And I also have these two compilations: Past Masters Vol. 2 and Love that I have already referred earlier.

Released in March 1988 and November 2006

No-one can deny the genius that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But if I had to choose just one album, I think it would be Revolver. And an overall favorite Beatles track? Probably We Can Work It Out (although I don’t like the ending particularly) that was released on a double A-side single (with Day Tripper) in December 1965 (and features on Past Masters Volume 2).

Happy memories!

Three score and ten . . .

18 November 1948. Today is my 70th birthday. Septuagenarian. The Biblical three score and ten (Psalm 90:10)!

Steph and I have come away for the weekend to celebrate my birthday with The Beatles in Liverpool.

We are staying for a couple of nights at Jurys Inn close to the Albert Dock. Later this morning we’ve booked to visit the National Trust-owned Beatles’ Childhood Homes (of John Lennon and Paul McCartney). And after lunch, we will tour The Beatles Story where I’m hoping to see, displayed there, something special from my childhood.

How the years have flown by. Just a month ago, Steph and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary. And I find it hard to believe that I started university over 50 years ago.

That got me thinking. I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the years after I graduated, my time working overseas, about travel, and what Steph and I have been up to since retiring in 2010.

However, I written much less about my early years growing up in Cheshire and Staffordshire. This is then an appropriate moment to fill some gaps.

A son of Cheshire
I was born in Knowlton House nursing home in Congleton, Cheshire (map), third son and fourth and youngest child of Frederick Harry Jackson (aged 40), a photo process engraver, and Lilian May Jackson, also aged 40, housewife.

Mum and Dad, around 1959/60 after we had moved to Leek

My eldest brother Martin has been able to trace our family’s ancestry (mainly on my father’s side) back to someone named Bull, who was my 13th great-grandfather, born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border, just one of my 32,000 plus direct ancestors then. I must be related to royalty in one way or another (as are most of us), although looking at the occupations noted for many of them in various official documents (birth and marriage certificates, census data), we came a long way down the pecking order. Definitely below the salt! We’re Irish on my mother’s side of the family.

A punk before it was fashionable!

I am also a child of the National Health Service (NHS) that was founded in July 1948. In fact, I’m (approximately) the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Knowlton House on Parson Street in Congleton – it’s no longer a nursing home.

I wonder who assisted at my birth? It could well have been our family Dr Galbraith, or Nurses Frost and Botting.

Dr Galbraith (R) was our family doctor, who (with his partner Dr Ritchie) often attended births at Knowlton House, and is seen here with resident midwife Nurse Rose Hannah Frost, who assisted at more than 3000 births. There is a very good chance either Nurse Frost or Nurse May Botting (who ran the nursing home) assisted at my birth. In this photo from 1936, Dr Galbraith and Nurse Frost are holding the Nixon triplets. Photo courtesy of Alan Nixon, who was apparently named after Dr Galbraith.

My dad registered my birth¹ on 22 November (Entry No. 442). There are few ‘Michaels’ in the family; Thomas is my paternal grandfather’s name.

My eldest brother Martin was born in September 1939, just a couple of days before war was declared on Germany. My sister Margaret was born in January 1941. Martin and Margaret spent much of WWII with my paternal grandparents in rural Derbyshire. My elder brother Edgar (‘Ed’) is, like me, one of the baby boomer generation, born in July 1946.

The difference of around 55 years – 1951/52 and 2006

I’ve often wondered what sacrifices Mum and Dad had to make to give us all such a good start in life.

Growing up in Congleton, we lived at 13 Moody Street, close to the town center’s High Street.

There’s not much to tell about my first couple of years, other than what I can surmise from a few photographs taken around that time when I was still in my pram or just beginning to walk. Two things I do remember clearly, though. The hens my father used to keep, and even the large henhouse he constructed at the bottom of the garden. And our female cat, Mitten, and all her kittens. That must have been the start of becoming an ailurophile (cat lover).

My best friend was Alan Brennan, a year younger, who lived a little further up Moody Street at No. 23 (and with whom I reconnected through this blog, after a gap of around 60 years!).

With Alan and his parents (and friends) at Timbersbrook, in 1955. I clearly remember Mr Brennan’s Vauxhall car – a Wyvern I believe.

We didn’t go to the same primary school. Like my brothers and sister before me, I was enrolled (in September 1952 or April 1953, maybe as late as September 1953) at the small Church of England school on Leek Road in Mossley, south of the town. By then, Martin had moved on to grammar school in Macclesfield; Margaret had also transferred to secondary school in Congleton.

Each morning, Ed and I would catch the bus in the High Street together for the short, 1½ mile ride to Mossley. And even as young as five, I would sometimes walk home alone from school during the summer months, along Leek Road and Canal Road/Street. How times change!

I remember the headteacher, Mr Morris, as a kind person. My class teachers were Mrs Bickerton (on the left) and Mrs Johnson (on the right). Courtesy of Liz Campion.

There was a real community of children around Moody Street, Howie Lane/Hill, and Priesty Fields. In summer, we’d all wander up to play on the swing bridge over the Macclesfield Canal (beyond the cemetery – where we would also play in a WWII air raid shelter). The bridge has long been replaced, but from comments on a Congleton Facebook group I belong to, it seems that over the generations, many children enjoyed the swing bridge as much as we did.

In winter, we had fun in the snow at Priesty Fields just round the corner from Moody St. And, as you can see below, we enjoyed dressing up. Happy days!

In the upper image, taken on Coronation Day in 1953, I’m fifth from the right (carrying the stick). Alan Brennan is the little by to the left of the ‘clown’, and in front of the ‘pirate’, my elder brother Ed. The lower image was taken on May Day, probably 1953 or 54. I’m on the left, carrying the sword, uncertain whether to be a knight or a cowboy.

c. 1955. L-R: Veronica George, Carol Brennan, Jessica George, my elder brother Ed, me, Margaret Moulton, and Alan Brennan. Taken in the garden of No 13 Moody St. The George sisters lived at No. 21 Moody St.

I often joined my father when he went out on photographic assignments for the Congleton Chronicle (where he was Chief Photographer), often to Biddulph Grange when it was an orthopedic hospital, also to Astbury, and out into the beautiful Cheshire countryside.

I remember one outing in particular, to Little Moreton Hall in May 1954. This is my father’s photo of Manley Morris Men dancing there, an image that stuck in my mind for many years. So much so that when I went to university in the later 1960s, I helped form a morris dancing side, the Red Stags, that’s still going strong (albeit in a slightly different form) 50 years later.

The Manley Morris Men at Little Moreton Hall on 8 May 1954.

For family holidays I remember those in North Wales, at a caravan park or, on one occasion, a camping coach, a converted railway carriage alongside the mainline to Holyhead next to the beach at Abergele.

During these early years, until July 1954, rationing was still in place that had come into effect at the start of the Second World War. I often wonder how my parents managed to raise four children during these difficult years. One thing I do recall, however, is how we shared things, particularly confectionery. No individual treats. My father would buy a Mars bar (I’m sure they were bigger then) and cut it into six pieces. Funny how these things stick in one’s memory.


The move to Leek
April 1956. A big change in my life. My family upped sticks and moved 12 miles southeast to the market town of Leek in north Staffordshire, where my father took over a retail photography business. As I was only 7½ when we moved, I’ve come to regard Leek as my home town. My parents lived there for the rest of their lives. My father passed away in 1980, and after my mother had a stroke in 1990, only then did she move away from Leek to spend her last couple of years in a care home near my sister in South Wales.

We lived at No. 65, St Edward Street, and within a couple of days of arriving there, I’d made friends with three boys who lived close by: Philip Porter (next door), Geoff Sharratt – whose father was publican at The Quiet Woman pub a few doors away, and David Phillips who lived over the road. Geoff’s younger sister Susan sometimes joined in our games, as did Philip’s sister Jill. We were the ‘St Edward Street Gang’.

Here we are in the late 1950s (probably 1958), in the yard of The Quiet Woman pub. L-R: Sue, Geoff, me, Philip, and Dave. And again in 2018.

Geoff was my best friend, and we spent a lot of time playing together. There were several upstairs rooms at The Quiet Woman, one of which was the Lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB, the Buffs, a fraternal organization somewhat similar to the Freemasons). During inclement weather, we often took refuge in the Lodge, playing among the benches and high chairs.

Playing with my Hornby ‘O’ gauge clockwork train at ‘Congleton’ station – it would be a collectors’ item today. Taken around 1958.

I was also a cub scout, as was Ed.

Around 1960, the lease on No. 65 came due, so my father decided to to find a better location for his business. First, he moved across St Edward’s St to No. 56 (while we lived in a flat at the top of the Market Place). In 1962/63 my father acquired No. 19 Market Place as premises for his photographic business, with living accommodation above. This was just what he had been looking for, centrally located in the town, lots of footfall. But the whole property had to be refurbished; there was only one water tap – in the cellar. He did much of the refurbishment himself. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at his DIY talents, something I sadly have not inherited to the same degree. My parents remained at No. 19 until they retired in 1976.

Sandwiched between Jackson the Optician (no relation) on the left, and Victoria Wine on the right, No 19 Market Place was my parents home for 14 years.

Around the same time, Geoff’s parents left The Quiet Woman and moved elsewhere in the town. I was also traveling every day to school to Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent (a round trip of about 28 miles), while Geoff continued his education in Leek. As a consequence, we drifted apart, but through my blog we reconnected in 2012.

Mr Smith

My mother’s family were Irish Catholics, and although we had not been brought up in the faith while in Congleton, both Ed and myself were enrolled in St. Mary’s RC primary school on Cruso Street, a short walk away from home. We were taught by Sisters of Loreto nuns. Headmistress Mother Elizabeth or my class teacher, Mother Bernadine, were never averse to wrapping us across the knuckles with the sharp edge of a ruler. In my final year at St Mary’s (1959-60), we were taught by Mr Smith. But my recollections don’t tally so much with many others who also attended St Mary’s. And I have been horrified at some accounts of how unhappy they were at the school in the 1950s and 60s.

In the late 50s and early 60s, just Ed and I would join our parents for holidays in Wales, most often camping or in our own caravan.

Some of my happiest memories though come from our visits to my grandparents² (my father’s parents) in Hollington, a small Derbyshire village between Ashbourne and Derby. My grandfather was almost 76 when I was born; Grandma was 68.

Family picnic at Hollington, c. 1952, with cousins. Grandma in the center, my mum is on the left. I’m center front ‘guarding’ the bottle.

With Grandad and Grandma Jackson, and our cousin Diana, c. 1959 at Ebenezer Cottage.

Grandma and Grandad celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1954, the occasion of a large gathering of family and friends in Hollington.


Enduring high school
I passed my 11 Plus exam to attend a Roman Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, at Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent. Founded by Irish Christian Brothers in 1932, the school took boys only (but is now co-educational). I had to be on the bus by 07:50 each morning if I was to get to school by 09:00. This was my daily routine for the next seven years.

On reflection, I can’t say that I found the school experience satisfying or that the quality of the education I received was worth writing home about. Yes, there were some good teachers who I looked up to, but much of the teaching was pretty mediocre. I’ve written elsewhere about the gratuitous use of corporal punishment at the school.

Perhaps one of the school’s claims to fame was the priest who attended to our ‘spiritual needs’. He was Father John Tolkien, son JRR Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. My first impressions of Fr Tolkien were not favorable. He came across as cold and authoritarian. When I got to know him later on, however, I found he was a warm person with a good sense of humor. I was saddened to learn that his last years were blighted by accusations of abuse, later dropped.


On to university . . . and faraway places
I was lucky to secure a place in October 1967 at the University of Southampton to study botany and geography, beginning three of the happiest years of my life. I’ve already blogged about various aspects of my time at Southampton, and you can read them here. Little did I think that I would have a career in botany, and that would lead me to fulfill one of my ambitions: to visit Peru.

Even though I graduated in 1970 with only an average BSc degree, that didn’t hold me back. I had ambitions.

I was fortunate to be accepted into graduate school at the University of Birmingham, where I completed MSc and PhD degrees in plant genetic resources, and returned there in 1981 for a decade as Lecturer in Plant Biology.

After my PhD graduation at The University of Birmingham on 12 December 1975 with my PhD supervisor, Prof. Jack Hawkes (L) and Prof. Trevor Williams (R) who supervised my MSc dissertation.

My international career in plant genetic resources conservation and agriculture took me to Peru and Costa Rica from 1973-1981, to work on potatoes for the International Potato Center (CIP). And then in July 1991, I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for the next 19 years as head of the genebank then as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

I had good opportunities to publish my research over the years, in terms of journal articles, books and book chapters, and presentations at scientific conferences.

I retired in April 2010, at the age of 61. But I haven’t rested on my laurels. Scientifically I have:

In the 2012 I was honored to be made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to international food science (in the New Year’s Honours).

I set up this blog in February 2012, and have written more than 460 stories for a total of around 470,000 words since then, and posted thousands of images, most of which I have taken myself.


Family
Steph and I were married on 13 October 1973 in Lima, Peru. We’d met at Birmingham during 1971-72, and after I’d moved to Lima in January 1973, she joined me there in July and also worked at CIP.

At La Granja Azul restaurant near Lima (on the left) after our wedding in 1973. And on the right, exactly 45 years later during one of our walks at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Hannah, our elder daughter was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. Philippa was born in Bromsgrove in May 1982, a year after we had moved back to the UK (in March 1981). When we moved to the Philippines in 1991, they both attended the International School Manila, and then went on to university in the USA (Macalester College in Minnesota) and Durham in the UK, respectively. In 2006 and 2010, they completed their PhD degrees in psychology, respectively at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

PhD graduands! On the left, Hannah is with her classmates in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Emily and Mike, on 12 May 2006. Philippa (on the right) is with one of her PhD supervisors, Prof. David Kennedy of the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre in the Dept. of Psychology at Northumbria University on 7 December 2010.

In those same years Hannah married Michael, and Phil married Andi. We now have four wonderful grandchildren: Callum (8), Elvis (7), Zoë (6), and Felix (5). The family came together for the first time in a New Forest holiday in July 2016.

On holiday in the New Forest in July 2016. L-R (sitting): Callum, Hannah, Zoë, me, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael and Andi

The 2018-19 school year started for Callum and Zoë in August, and for Elvis and Felix in September. It was also Felix’s first day at school.

In September, Steph and I spent a week in Cornwall exploring many National Trust and English Heritage properties around the county.

Foldes and Fenner family photos in July and September


So, as I look back on the past 70 years, I can’t say I have much to complain about. Steph and I have a beautiful family. An interesting career took me to more than 65 countries (and Steph to some of those). We’ve lived and worked in three countries and made some wonderful friends.

Je ne regrette rien

At 70, though, what does life have in store?

I think Fleetwood Mac (one of my favorite bands) sum it up quite nicely. If it was fine for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for me.

Retirement is sweet. Who could ask for more?


¹ I no longer have my original birth certificate. That now sits in an archive somewhere in the Miraflores Municipality building in Lima, Peru. When Steph and I married there in October 1973 we had to present our original birth certificates, not realizing these would be filed away in perpetuity and never returned to us.

² I did not really know my mother’s parents, who died before my sixth birthday. They lived in Epsom, Surrey.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Unfortunately, politics in the UK is broken and requires more than a sticking plaster.

A minority Conservative government under Prime Minister Theresa May has been rent asunder by Brexit. The draft withdrawal deal announced yesterday already appears dead in the water. Even as the Cabinet ‘approved’ the draft text at a marathon meeting yesterday, there were reports that as many as nine cabinet members were opposed, although apparently going along with the whole charade.

It’s now just before noon, and already two Cabinet members have resigned, including the second idiot in charge of the Brexit negotiations, Dominic Raab. And several junior ministers have gone as well. More are expected. Theresa May is entering a dark place.

Immediately on release of the draft agreement, the Brexiteer vultures began to circle. Without having read the text (a 580 page document, which was published online later in the evening), they rejected the draft out of hand. It has not found favor with Remainers either. In speaking briefly to the assembled press outside No 10, Theresa May said it was her deal, no deal, or no Brexit. Hope lingers eternal that if Parliament rejects the draft, a sane way out of this chaos might yet be found. One thing is clear. Theresa May is going to struggle to win support for the agreement in the House of Commons. Opinion is too divided.

May lost her overall parliamentary majority in the disastrous 2017 General Election (for the Conservatives anyway), and has since been kept in power by 10 members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But even they are preparing to abandon the May Brexit ship, despite having accepted a £1 billion ‘bribe’ after the General Election to provide May with a working majority under a confidence-and-supply agreement. They are even more blinkered than usual. It has not been a pretty sight, especially as the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic became the major sticking point in the withdrawal agreement negotiations with the European Union (EU).

Given the ‘civil war’ within the ranks of the Conservative Party, Labour should have won the 2017 election, hands down. Or perhaps I should say it could have won the election if its stance on Brexit had been unequivocally in favor of Remain. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn, has consistently proved just what a weak and prevaricating leader of the Labour Party he is. Certainly there is now a clear majority of Labour supporters—in every Labour-held constituency—in favor of remaining, as evidenced by a nationwide poll of 20,090 people that Channel 4 commissioned recently. Even regions of the UK that voted heavily in favor of Brexit: the northeast, Wales, and the southwest, now have majorities in favor of remaining members of the EU.

Referendums are, to some extent, a clumsy democratic tool. However, in Switzerland they are used all the time. But, if social mores change, then the Swiss can change their minds, and this shift in opinion can be reflected in another referendum. Referendums are employed in California to guide opportunities to change the law (such as the legalization of cannabis), if I understand that situation correctly.

The Brexit referendum was different. Why? Although it was ‘advisory’, it is now seen (on the Brexiteer side) as immutable, the ‘will of the British people’, cast in stone, never to be challenged or overturned. But clearly public opinion has moved on, now that the actual consequences of Brexit are becoming clearer, already realized in some instances.

On the other hand, referendums have one important aspect that normal elections (at least in the UK) do not have. Every vote counts. For example, with our first-past-the-post electoral system, there’s hardly any chance that my vote ever counts in parliamentary elections in our Bromsgrove constituency, held by the Conservatives with a comfortable majority; Home Secretary Sajid Javid is the sitting MP.

So, the 2016 referendum result, 51.9-48.1% in favor of leaving the EU was an accurate reflection of those who voted. But since only 72.2% of the electorate turned out to vote (actually high by other election standards), those explicitly in favor of leaving were only about 37%. I’ve always maintained that for this referendum that would have such economic, political, constitutional, and social implications, there had to be a minimum agreed voter turnout for the referendum to be valid in the first place (which I think would be the case for 2016), and an overall majority of the electorate (not just those who voted).

Goodness knows what the outcome is going to be. Politics has become so tribal, factional, and disjointed, I have no idea where the country is heading – except down the bowl, perhaps. The extremes of politics, on the right and on the left, are center stage right now. It’s time to claim back the center ground, but that’s increasingly difficult with our first-past-the-post system.

Reluctantly—and I never thought I would ever come to this position—I do believe it’s time to take really hard and serious look at proportional voting and representation. Compromise is denigrated quite often in politics today, but working to reach compromise does focus minds.

Proportional representation in many European countries most often leads to coalition governments that take months to agree a parliamentary agenda. Is that such a bad thing? Is coalition government per se such a bad thing?

After the 2010 election the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservatives and, based on reaction to at least one key decision in government (student tuition fees), the Liberal Democrats were hammered in the 2015 General Election. But was their participation in the coalition so terrible? I sincerely believe that they did help reduce the impact of the hard right (who hated the Lib-Dems with a vengeance), and the natural orientations of Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne.

I, for one, would be willing to give coalition government a try once again. And if that means introducing proportional representation, then that’s what needs to be done. After all, future governments can always reverse that decision, something that apparently we are unable or powerless (forbidden?) to effect now to steer a course away from the omnishambles that Brexit has become.

Changes to how we elect our politicians would certainly be more than a sticking plaster.

A calamity averted

I was going to say ‘disaster’, but that would be an exaggeration.

Let me take you back to mid-November 2008. It was my 60th birthday, and Steph and I had planned a small dinner—just a handful of close friends—to celebrate with. I didn’t want a big party.

So we invited one of my closest colleagues at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, plant physiologist Dr John Sheehy (with whom I shared the OBE in 2012), my second-in-command in the Office for Program Planning & Communications, Corinta Guerta, and Duncan Macintosh (IRRI’s Director for Development in my office) and his fiancée Cel (now Mrs Macintosh).

A week earlier, during our regular monthly shop at Alabang (47 km north towards Manila) we selected a nice looking complete beef tenderloin, perhaps 3-4 kg, which we placed in the freezer in readiness for the dinner party. I also chose a simple starter of delicious local king prawns, and asparagus spears and broccoli with the beef. Fresh mangoes and vanilla ice-cream (my favorites) completed the dessert.

We invited our guests to arrive around 6:30 pm, to enjoy a glass of champagne (or three) before dinner. I’d placed two bottles of Veuve Cliquot Brut on ice beforehand.

Anyway, I decided to leave the office a little earlier the day of my birthday, at 4 pm, to check on preparations at home (we lived on the Staff Housing gated community, just 10 minutes from the IRRI research center).

Imagine my horror when I found that our helper Lilia had not even taken the beef from the freezer. Just two hours before our guests arrived and we were faced with a frozen slab of beef. I had asked Lilia not to prepare everything too early. Although a fabulous cook, unless checked, she had the habit (tradition even) of preparing and cooking our meals way ahead. I also discovered that she had diced the asparagus into small pieces! This was not an auspicious start to my 60th birthday bash.

What to do? We initially thawed the beef under the hot water tap, then placed it in the microwave on the highest setting for several minutes. That at least thawed the beef to a couple of centimeters or so. Then I asked Lilia to brown the beef in a pan on the stove, thawing it even more, before placing it in a hot oven, wrapped in foil to cook for the next hour or so.

We sat down to prawns a little after 7 pm, and as we finished that course, I slipped into the kitchen to check on the beef, heart in mouth. Removing the foil, the beef was delightfully cooked on the outside, but what about the center? I prodded it with a fork. It was thawed, and the fork felt warm when I removed it. Taking courage in both hands, I gingerly sliced the beef in two. And, lo and behold, it was cooked to perfection: tender, juicy, and slightly pink in the middle. What a relief doesn’t quite capture my feelings just then.

Washed down with several bottles of Cabernet Shiraz or similar, and some digestifs to follow, this was a delightful way to celebrate my birthday. All’s well that ends well.