In perpetuity . . . or longer

The airwaves yesterday were full of the news* about the secure, in perpetuity funding that the Crop Trust has awarded (annually USD1.4 million) to support the operations of the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines. The genebank conserves the largest and most genetically diverse collection of rice genetic resources that is the genetic base of rice improvement programs worldwide. It’s the first genebank to receive this sort of funding commitment.

In perpetuity! Forever! That’s a long time. In some ways, of course, it’s not a completely open-ended commitment. The agreement (to be signed on World Food Day, 16 October, during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore) will, I understand, be subject to five-year reviews, and the development of a business plan that will guide how, where and what will get done. That plan must inevitably evolve over time, as new technologies not only enhance how rice seeds can be better preserved but also how they can be used in rice improvement. Not that I can see IRRI screwing up and losing the funding. That behavior is not in the institutional DNA!

The collection holds more than 130,000 seed samples or accessions of landrace varieties, wild species, and other research materials, among others. You can check the status of the IRRI collection (and many more genebanks in the Genesys database).

My congratulations to Genebank Head and compatriot, Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton and his key genebank lieutenants, Genebank Manager Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Sr Associate Scientist Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño, for guiding the genebank to this happy state.

It has been a long journey, almost 60 years, from 1960 when IRRI was founded and Dr TT Chang (the first head of the genebank) began to assemble a collection of rice varieties that soon became the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC).

L-R: Dr TT Chang was head of the International Rice Germplasm Center from 1962-1990; Mike Jackson served as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (here with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Norman Borlaug) from 1991-2001; and Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton joined IRRI in 2002.

There was a significant change of direction, so to speak, to the genebank and its operations in 1991 after my appointment as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center (the IRGC acronym was subsequently changed to International Rice Genebank Collection) with a mandate to rationalize and upgrade the genebank’s operations. I held that position for the next decade before moving on to the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications in 2001. Ruaraidh joined IRRI in 2002 and has been at the helm ever since.

In other stories posted on this blog I have described what it entails to run a genebank for rice, and some of the important changes we made to modernize genebank management and operations, especially how they were impacted with respect to the institute’s international obligations to FAO and subsequently under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

In 2015 I made my own video to illustrate many of the different operations of the genebank, some of which have been modified in the light of new research concerning the handling of rice seeds post-harvest. Nevertheless, the video reflects the changes I introduced during my tenure as head of the International Rice Genebank, many of which still prevail.

Ruaraidh built upon the changes I introduced, bar-coding all samples for example, and linking the collection with others in the CGIAR through the Genebank Platform. There have been further improvements to how data about the collection are managed, and seed management was enhanced through the research of former employee and seed physiologist Dr Fiona Hay and her PhD student Kath (now Dr) Whitehouse.

Ruaraidh has also successfully steered IRRI and its genetic resources through the turbulent currents of international germplasm politics that culminated in the entering into force of the International Treaty in June 2004, and the subsequent negotiations over access and benefit sharing. I can’t deny I was quite happy to leave these ‘political’ aspects behind when I left GRC in 2001. Management and use of genetic resources in the 1990s were increasingly affected by the various negotiations that affected access to and sharing of biodiversity after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force in December 1993. To some extent they were a distraction (but an important one) from the technical aspects of rice genetic resources that I tackling.

It’s quite humbling that for generations to come, I will have been a part of securing the genetic heritage of rice. Besides making the necessary technical changes to genebank structure and operations in the 1990s, I’m particularly proud of the personnel structures I introduced. These permitted staff to really fulfill their potential.

I quickly recognized that Pola should be placed in the role of Genebank Manger, and Ato given responsibility for all field operations. We built a team that believed in a culture of mutual support.

Ken McNally

Another aspect was the recognition, way back in 1998, of the power of genomics and molecular genetics to unravel the secrets of rice diversity. To that end I had organized an international workshop in The Hague in September 1999, which is described about two-thirds through this blog post. I was fortunate to hire Dr Ken McNally as a molecular geneticist in this respect, and he has taken the study of rice genetic diversity to another level, supported by someone who I believed in from my early days at IRRI, Dr Elizabeth Naredo.

But the genebank is also facing some changes. Ruaraidh is expected to retire in the near future, and Pola and Ato can’t be far off retirement. No-one is irreplaceable, but they will be a hard act to follow. Finding individuals with the same breadth of experience, commitment to genetic resources conservation, and work ethic will certainly be a challenge. Other staff from my era have already retired; the genebank did not fall apart. With this secure funding from the Crop Trust the genebank can, for the first time in its 60 year history, set itself on a trajectory into the future in a way that was always uncertain in the past (because of year-to-year funding), but always the Holy Grail of genetic resources conservation.

I also hope that IRRI will step up to the plate and secure other funds to build a completely new genebank appropriate for the 21st century. After all, the facilities I ‘inherited’ from TT Chang are approaching 40-50 years, and even those I improved are 25 years old. Relieving the institute of the genebank annual operating budget should open up other opportunities.

Congratulations to IRRI, and on behalf of the genetic resources community (especially those depending on rice) a big thank you to the Crop Trust!


* BBC, Nature, and New Food Magazine, among others.

 

Whither the grasspea?

Would you knowingly eat something that could harm you? That’s the dilemma facing millions of poor, subsistence farmers and their families from time to time, especially in India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, when the alternative is not eating anything at all. Famine.

From the beginnings of agriculture and earlier, 10,000 or more years ago, farmers have cultivated and consumed in times of adversity, the seeds of a plant known scientifically as Lathyrus sativus L. Or, more commonly, the grasspea. It’s also an important fodder crop for livestock.

On the plus side, grasspea has a good protein profile and, as a legume, it supplies nitrogen to the soil through its root nodules. Its particular agricultural value is that it can be grown in times of drought, as well as when the land is flooded. It’s the ultimate insurance crop for poor, subsistence farmers.

Yet, it holds a deadly secret. β-ODAP. Or more precisely, β-L-oxalyl-2,3-diaminopropionic acid to give its full name, an amino acid that is also a neurotoxin responsible for the condition known as lathyrism, a non-reversible paralysis. No wonder, then, that its cultivation is banned in some Indian states. In the past, its consumption has also had severe consequences in Europe.

‘Gracias a la Almorta’ or ‘Thanks to the Grasspea’ by Francisco de Goya (painted between 1811 and 1813), painted during the Spanish War of Independence, when poor people turned to eating grasspea, and suffered paralysis from lathyrism. However, on the British Museum website it suggests grain (millet) rather than ‘grasspea’, and no mention of lathyrism. ‘Almorta’ is a Spanish word for grasspea.

Yet, when needs must, poor farmers turn to the grasspea when there is nothing else to eat because drought or floods have wiped out other crops.

So what’s being done to overcome the grasspea’s downside? Fortunately, an international collaborative research effort (funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund), Unlocking the Potential of Grass pea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought Prone Environments (UPGRADE), aims to breed ‘sweet’ varieties of grasspea with a low content of the neurotoxin.

I learned about this project yesterday evening when I happened to tune into BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (you can listen from about 11′ 20″ into the program). The John Innes Centre in the UK is one of the project members, and in Prof. Cathie Martin‘s lab, Dr Anne Edwards is screening about 500 different grasspea lines, testing them for β-ODAP content, and also introgressing the lower content trait into different genetic backgrounds, for future testing in the field.

I was fascinated to hear how this international collaboration was making progress towards defeating the scourge of lathyrism, as I’d also worked on grasspea almost 40 years ago. But from a crop evolution and genetic resources point of view.

When I returned to The University of Birmingham in 1981, I decided to start a small research project on grasspea, looking at the diversity and broader genetic resources of this important but somewhat neglected crop, in addition to continuing my research on potatoes.

In 1981, one of the students attending the one-year MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources was Abdul bin Ghani Yunus from Malaysia. He worked on his dissertation project under my supervision, to study the diversity of grasspea. I already had assembled a collection of grasspea varieties from different sources around the world including the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg, so Ghani had quite a stock of varieties to work with.

His dissertation led to one scientific paper, Variation in the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L. and wild species, published in the journal Euphytica in 1984. There were two principal conclusions:

  • L. sativus is a highly variable species, and there is a clear distinction between the blue-flowered forms from south-west Asia, Ethiopia and the Indian subcontinent, and the white and white and blue flowered forms with white seeds which have a more westerly distribution. Differences in vegetative parts may be due to selection for forage types.
  • L. sativus appears to be closely related to L. cicera and L. gorgoni, and this relationship needs further investigation.

Ghani returned to Malaysia in 1982 to continue his research and teaching at the University of Agriculture, Selangor and I heard little from him, until about 1986. Then, he contacted me again, asking about the possibilities of returning to Birmingham to complete a PhD under my supervision. He wanted to work on a tropical species from Malaysia. But since he did not envision spending time back in Malaysia during his PhD program, I explained that working on this species (I don’t now remember what it was) was not feasible, since we wouldn’t be able to grow it successfully in the glasshouse at Birmingham. After all, it wasn’t the species per se that was the most important aspect for his PhD; it would be the focus, the scientific methods and approaches he would learn and employ that were more important.

I convinced him to continue his work on Lathyrus, but broadening its scope to study the biosystematics or biological relationships of the grasspea with the species considered to be its closest relatives. In that way we anticipated better defining the genetic resources or gene pools of the grasspea (an essential prerequisite if, at some time in the future, a breeding program was set up that needed to exploit more diversity), as well as trying to shed some light on the origin of this neglected food crop.

In 1990, Ghani successfully presented his PhD thesis, Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L., leading to two more useful scientific papers that have been widely cited:

  • The genepools of the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L., in Plant Breeding (1991). This research concerned the cross-breeding relationships of the grasspea and its closest relatives, based on experimental pollinations, pollen tube growth microscopy, and chromosome pairing, confirming one of our earlier hypotheses about L. cicera.
  • Phenotypic polymorphism of six isozymes in the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.), in Euphytica (1991). Ghani concluded that there was more genetic variation than perhaps expected in this self-pollinating species, and we discussed the implications of exploiting this diversity in plant breeding.

Today, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives financial support from the Crop Trust to conserve almost 4200 samples of grasspea in its genebank, with 2000 safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, grasspea is not the only edible plant species that comes with a health risk. In South America, for example, there are so-called ‘bitter’ varieties of cassava, an important source of carbohydrate, producing cyanogenic compounds that must be removed before the roots are safe to eat. Indigenous communities throughout Brazil evolved techniques to express the poisonous juice and make the food safe. In other parts of South America ‘sweet’ varieties were selected over thousands of years, and became the genetic base of commercial cassava varieties grown world-wide. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia has the world’s largest cassava germplasm that I was privileged to see in 2016 when I was conducting an evaluation of the CGIAR’s genebanks program.

This grasspea story is a good example of how progress can be made when there’s a clear research project objective, funding is available, and researchers around the world agree to pool their expertise towards solving an important problem. With recent reports that the head of DFID (the UK’s government department managing overseas development assistance or ODA) is seriously considering making changes to the 0.7% of national income commitment to the ODA budget, grasspea improvement for marginalized communities goes to show just how important such funding is, and the potential impact it can have on the lives of some of the poorest people around the world. This is the raison d’être of international agricultural research for development, an endeavor in which I participated over four decades.

Summer has returned . . . for one day only

Yesterday, I was reminded of that great radio broadcaster, Alistair Cooke (1908-2004) who presented Letter from America, a weekly 15-minute broadcast on the BBC from March 1946 to February 2004.

2,869 episodes! In each, Cooke presented a topical issue in the USA, tying together different strands of observation and anecdote and often ending on a humorous or poignant note.

Growing up, my family would listen faithfully to Letter from America, and that habit stayed with me as I moved on to university, and even while I was working overseas. Cooke had an excellent broadcasting voice, and always had something worthwhile and erudite to impart.

Originally from the UK, he moved to the USA in the 1930s and became a US citizen in 1941.

So why did Cooke drop into my mind yesterday, 10 October? It was one of those bright and sunny days, warm even, that we come to hope for in October, but rarely expect or experience. It was certainly a typical ‘Indian summer’ day, around 22-24°C, not a cloud in the sky.

When I was at university in the late 1960s, I remember listening to one particular Letter from America (I’m unable to track down the broadcast or transcript, although many are available online) in which Cooke waxed lyrical about Fall in New England, and went on to discuss the origin of the term ‘Indian summer‘. He described the unseasonably warm and dry days with clear, sunny skies that can occur around this time of year, often accompanied by misty mornings. It’s from this phenomenon, Cooke suggested, that the term was derived. The early colonists were aware that Native Americans would take advantage of this weather to hunt, and often attack their settlements under the cover of these misty mornings.

Yesterday’s weather pulled a memory of that broadcast, stored away for about 50 years, from the recesses of my mind.

Steph and I took full advantage to walk a stretch of the Heart of England Way, starting at the National Trust’s Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire (just under 20 miles east of Bromsgrove, and about 30 minutes from home by car). I even had to retrieve my summer shorts from the drawer where I had put them away for the winter.

Described as An easy walk along country lanes and field paths, taking in Baddesley Clinton, Rowington Church and the Heart of England Way, it’s listed at under 3 miles in length, although according to my pedometer it was more like 3.8 miles.

We arrived at Baddesley Clinton just before 10:30 and, not having seen much traffic heading to the property, were rather surprised to encounter a very full car park. The place was heaving! We decided to take our walk before lunch, and then visit the gardens afterwards.

The weather was glorious, the rolling Warwickshire landscape stretching to the horizon, leaves changing color on trees all around, and also full of berries. I’ve never seen so many holly berries.

We set off through the churchyard of St Michael’s Church (1), and along the gravel road to turn right (2) on to Haywood Lane, and then, after about a mile, right on to Rowington Green.

A little distance along Rowington Green, the walk leaves the road and crosses fields (3) — along the Heart of England Way — to Rowington (4). We took a short break in the churchyard of the 12th century Church of St Lawrence (or St Laurence).

From Rowington, the walk heads north, along a public bridleway (5), and ending back at St Michael’s. I guess the walk took a couple of hours; we never rush.

 

Baddesley Clinton is a moated house, first built in the 1400s. One of the original owners was Nicholas Brome, Lord of the Manor of Baddesley Clinton, and is buried in St Michael’s Church. The house passed to the Ferrer family who occupied it for the next 500 years.

We didn’t visit the house yesterday, but decided to take a look at the garden – and we were not disappointed. There was a magnificent display of dahlias in one of the borders inside the walled garden.

Thank goodness we did take advantage of the exceptional weather. Today’s weather could hardly be more different. It’s windy, overcast, and all morning it has been spitting with rain. It’s a little cooler than yesterday, but going to go downhill as we progress into tomorrow and the weekend. That’s because Storm Callum is due to sweep in from the Atlantic overnight tonight, bringing a lot of rain. Climate change? What climate change? I wonder how long it will take for the remnants of Hurricane Michael to reach us?

Bull is the name . . . history is the game

John Bull is, according to the article in Wikipedia, the national personification of the United Kingdom in general, and England in particular.

One of my family names is Bull.

My grandmother, Alice Maud Bull, born on 16 April 1880, married my grandfather Thomas (Tom) Jackson on 23 August 1904. They had four children together, and she was also stepmother to Tom’s daughter and son by his first wife Maria Bishop, who died in childbirth in 1900.

Alice hailed from the village of Hollington in Derbyshire, about halfway between Ashbourne and Derby. Tom and Alice set up married life together in Burton-on-Trent, but returned to Hollington after Tom retired. Grandma was 68 when I was born; grandad was almost 76. So I only ever knew them as elderly folks.

My parents and my elder brother Edgar and myself with Grandma and Grandad Jackson at Ebenezer Cottage in Hollington, around 1958.

My father Frederick was the second child born to Alice and Tom, in September 1908. My dad married Lilian Healy in 1936; I was born 12 years later in November 1948, the youngest of four children. My middle name is Thomas, after my grandad. My wife Stephanie and I named our younger daughter Philippa Alice after my grandmother.

After my father passed away in 1980, my eldest brother Martin began a long search into our family ancestry, that has lasted more than 37 years. He has uncovered many of our family ties, stretching back (on the Bull line at least) to the late 15th century, some fifteen generations, and almost as far on several other lines.

I’m the 13th great-grandson of a man named Bull who was born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border (where many of my ancestors hailed from), probably in or near Ellastone (as that was where his son and grandson were born and buried). Several generations of Bulls over 200 years lived in the village of Cubley in Derbyshire, less than five miles from Ellastone.

I’m also the 6th great-grandson of John Jackson (b. 1711, m. Hannah Clark 1732), the 9th great-grandson of Thomas Holloway (b. 1600, m. Isabella ?? around 1620), and 10th great-grandson of Hugh Tipper (b. 1574, m. Ellen Crichelowe in 1604 or 1605).

My father’s side of the family comprised, at the beginning of the 16th century, some 16,000+ direct ancestors, about 0.5% of the population of England. Do the maths. We can’t all have completely independent family lines, so they must come together in a vast web of inter-relatedness, sharing many ancestors in common, if we could just make the connections.

Knowing the names of my ancestors in this way also helps me connect vicariously with the major historical events through which they lived. But, because they were living in rural Staffordshire and Derbyshire, it’s hard to fathom how their lives might have been affected. The Bulls were, in general, farming and laboring stock.

King Richard III

Mr Bull was born, in 1480, at the end of the reign of King Edward IV, and five years before King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field that, as the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses as they became known, heralded the founding of the Tudor dynasty by Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. Henry Tudor passed through this area, or perhaps a little to the south on his way to Bosworth Field. Were men from the villages around forced to join his army?

Thomas (b. 1505) lived through the end of the reign of Henry VII, and the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, (Jane) and Mary Tudor. It’s highly probable that the Dissolution of the Monasteries (beginning in 1536) was keenly felt, as there were several nearby monastic houses in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Did they hear about the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, I wonder?

By the time his son and grandson, also both Thomas, had passed away, Elizabeth 1’s long reign had come to an end; the Tudors were history, and James I (and VI of Scotland) was on the throne, the beginning of the ill-fated Stuart dynasty. Thomas (b. 1581) and his son Robert (b. 1613) lived through the English Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651, the defeat of the Royalists, and the execution of Charles I in 1649, an event that must have rocked England to its very soul whether you favored the Royalist or Parliamentary side. Who did Thomas and Robert favor? The closest major conflict to where they lived in Cubley was the 1643 Royalist Siege of Lichfield, just 20 miles due south. Certainly both Royalist and Parliamentary armies criss-crossed this area of Mercia.

Here is a timeline of England during the 17th century.

Working class dress of the late 17th century

Robert (b. 1613), his son Robert (b. 1653), and grandson Joseph (b. 1679) knew the restoration of Charles II in 1680, then lived through the tumultuous years of James II and William III and Mary II, the Glorious Revolution, the consequences of which passed through to the late 20th century in Northern Ireland. During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill) achieved significant military success in Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Late 18th century dress, as depicted by Henry Singleton, ‘The Ale-House Door’ c. 1790

Joseph, son William (b. 1712), grandson Samuel (b. 1761), and great-grandson John (b. 1793) were Hanoverians through and through. This is an English timeline of the 18th century of industrial innovation.

Joseph lived through the two Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, the latter experienced very close to home as the Scots under Bonny Prince Charlie reached as far south as Derby. Fear and alarm must have spread throughout all communities in their path.

Samuel and John lived through the French Revolution in 1789, and the wars with Napoleon Bonaparte until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Were they or their relatives called upon to serve under the Duke of Wellington?

John Bull, my 2nd great-grandfather was born in 1825, half way through the reign of George IV, and died in 1900 just as Queen Victoria’s reign was coming to an end. All my subsequent Bull ancestors were Victorians – a period of industrial expansion, the building of the railways (and demise of the canals), and Empire! My great-grandfather, John, was born in Hollington in 1855, and worked as smallholder farmer and coal merchant. The family remained in the same area of Derbyshire throughout the 19th century.

During five centuries many of my Bull family (and probably those who married into the Jackson line as well) came from and continued to live in quite a small area of Staffordshire and Derbyshire. People mostly married from the same communities, or from others not more than a handful of miles away. After all, a man had to do his courting on foot, until the late 19th century¹ at least. I’ve heard that Tom Jackson walked miles to court Alice.

It has been fascinating to see my family history unfold, and what Martin has achieved is truly incredible and inspiring. People, names, and dates bring history to life.


¹ John Jinks, who was Professor of Genetics at the University of Birmingham, hailed the safety bicycle as one 19th century invention that probably did more for human population genetics than had ever before occurred, since couples could now more easily court over greater distances.

 

 

It’s the border, stupid

One news item on the radio this morning caught my attention. Today is the 50th anniversary of a civil rights march that took place in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and which descended into violence as officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacked demonstrators with batons.

This date, 5 October 1968, is widely regarded as the start of The Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland until the signing of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement thirty years later, in April 1998. In the intervening two decades, Northern Ireland has prospered, and an open border with the Republic of Ireland facilitated by both the UK and the Republic being members of the European Union. Last year, Steph and I toured Northern Ireland and saw for ourselves how far the province has come since them, with clear signs of prosperity and peace.

Once again, the island of Ireland is dominating British (and European) politics. Northern Ireland is at the forefront of the Brexit agenda, because of the border issue between the province and the Republic of Ireland. Post-Brexit in March 2019 this border will be the UK’s only land border with the EU. During our holiday in Northern Ireland, we criss-crossed that border multiple times. In fact, a single road, denominated A3 in Northern Ireland and N54 in the Republic, crosses from one country to the other four or five times in the space of less than 10 miles.

We traveled that road, and the only evidence of crossing from one country to the other were speed warning signs for mph or kph (Northern Ireland or Ireland).

Concerns have been raised in all quarters about a return to a post-Brexit hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic post-Brexit. That is one potential  (and awful) outcome of no withdrawal deal being reached between the UK and the EU. ‘Negotiations’ continue, and will come to a head in the next few weeks.

But no-one seems able to square the circle, and the UK government and the European Commission seem as far apart as ever. Incidentally, the dismantling of the hard border and its continued open status were conditions of the Good Friday Agreement that has undoubtedly brought peace and prosperity, It’s a legally-binding treaty that could potentially scupper Brexit. Brexiteers seem to forget the legality of this agreement.

On this 50th anniversary, it is appropriate in the context of the Brexit process to reflect on bitter times past and the consequences of communities unable to co-exist without resorting to violence.

It beggars belief, however, that someone as prominent in British politics as arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg can demonstrate, in recent cavalier and insensitive language that elicited widespread shock, his lack of understanding. He once again proved (to me at least) that he and acolytes are quite prepared to make Northern Ireland a sacrificial lamb in their determination to bring about a hard Brexit.

Unfortunately its devolved government has not been functioning since the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017, and effective government is at a standstill. The majority political party, the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP is pro-Brexit, and is playing hardball with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government which is in hock to the DUP for parliamentary support following the 2017 General Election when the Tories lost their overall majority.

I’m not going to go into detail about any or all of the various solutions that have been put forward to solve the border issue. Some involve technologies or approaches that have yet to prove their value or workability. To date these suggestions have been dismissed by one side or the other.

The Irish border question might be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Inevitably, I guess, there will be a fudge, some compromise that will satisfy no-one. However, it’s possible—probable even—that any agreement that Theresa May secures from the EU will be voted down in parliament, and then the risks of crashing out of the EU escalate significantly.

I strongly support the demand for a People’s Vote (i.e. a second referendum in some form or other). That’s our democratic right. People do change their minds and as the vision of a post-Brexit UK becomes clearer, there is a growing clamour for a new vote. In a number of recent nation-wide polls not only is there growing support for a People’s Vote, but the outcome of that vote would support remaining in the EU, with a much higher proportion supporting Remain than voted Leave in 2016. Ironically, in the 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44%. Going forward, Northern Ireland could be key to remaining in the EU.

Hope springs eternal!

Where’s Baldrick when you need him?

Surely one of Baldrick’s¹ ‘cunning plans’ can be no more preposterous than what Prime Minister (but for how much longer?) Theresa May² has tabled as her (non-negotiable) Brexit deal, or how the country will prosper post-Brexit?

I actually tweeted the other day that, for once, I was in agreement with Boris Johnson. Heaven forfend! He derided Theresa May’s Chequers Plan as ‘deranged’. I completely agree. But so are the ‘Titanic’ plans he and others have proposed. He’s also pretty deranged himself. Brexit and its adherents deserve to be taken down a peg or two in this video (that I came across on Facebook). The depiction of Jeremy Corbyn fiddling while the Titanic sinks is precious.

Almost everyone seems opposed to ‘Chequers’ – many of the PM’s own pro-Brexit MPs, as well as Remain MPs of all parties in the House of Commons. And, perhaps most significantly, those representing the EU in this Brexit negotiation (is it really a negotiation?). Everyone is getting brassed off by the whole Brexit process. Realistically, Chequers is dead in the water.

Brexit and the status of post-Brexit Britain has essentially become a belief system. Theresa May has accused those opposed to her ‘Chequers Plan’ as playing politics with the future of the country. But that’s what it’s been all about since before the referendum – appeasing the hard right of the Tory Party. No wonder Guy Verhoftadt made these comments yesterday in the European Parliament, in response to the latest proposals from Home Secretary, and Bromsgrove MP, Sajid Javid, about post-Brexit immigration and status of EU nationals.

Immigration was one of the key concerns that swung the referendum to the Leave side. Nevertheless, Conservatives continue to misunderstand how free movement can (and does) operate elsewhere in the Single Market. Just watch this interview yesterday with two Young Conservatives at the party’s annual conference in Birmingham.

And Theresa May’s stance and strategy on Brexit has been aided and abetted by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocating leadership. He’s more interested in a General Election that, he believes, will sweep Labour into power, him into No 10 Downing Street, to implement its hard left agenda that the country will probably be unable to afford post-Brexit, and I guess the majority of the electorate would not support in any case.

In terms of what happens post-Brexit, the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) of right-wing Brexiteer Tory MPs continually refer to the WTO option, as though membership of the EU is simply about trade. They never mention, never mind discuss, the implications of falling out of all the agencies that regulate (and mostly improve) our lives today – aviation, medicines, security, science, etc., to name just a few. Who knows what will be the consequences when we are no longer a member deriving the benefits of common regulations and standards.

From many statements I have heard from the likes of JR-M (a rather wealthy hedge fund manager as well as an MP) and the remarkably under-qualified Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox (a medical doctor by training), they have pretty limited understanding of how international trade works, especially under WTO rules, nor how trade negotiations are conducted. It’s illuminating therefore to listen to a seasoned trade negotiator explain the consequences of operating under WTO rules.

The UK expects to strike free trade deals all around the world as soon as it leaves the EU in March 2019. Well, the only free trade agreement (rather than ‘freer’ trade deals as most are) that we are likely ever to secure is the one under which we currently operate, in the Customs Union and Single Market as a member of the EU. Beyond that, it is pie in the sky. Maybe this should become the Brexiteers anthem (with apologies to Queen). Anyone for JR-M or BoJo in drag?

Anyway, to return to the ERG. I’m pretty certain they have no idea what the word ‘research’ actually means, nor what it entails. It’s certainly based on empiricism and a rigorous analysis of data and facts, something that seems to be lacking in much of what they have proposed. They also appear to have a serious problems with experts, people who actually do know what they are talking about, and have experience managing the very challenges the country faces as Brexit approaches.

In general, I have given up on BBC Radio 4’s Today program that I used to listen to religiously first thing in the morning, while supping a cup of tea in bed. Yesterday, however, I switched on and was fascinated to hear a Canadian trade expert, Christophe Bondy, talk about the signing of the new USMCA (US, Mexico and Canada) trade agreement. He was interviewed by the program’s business news presenter, Dominic O’Connell.

Dominic O’Connell (L) and Christophe Bondy (R)

Mr Bondy is an internationally-respected lawyer, now resident in London, who had held senior positions in Canada’s trade negotiations for USMCA, and even the Canada-Europe (CETA) deal that is being touted by so many Brexiteers as the model to follow, and knows what he is talking about. He has an impressive CV, one that not even the likes of JR-M can dispute.

Describing the Canada-USA trade negotiations as ‘bloody hard’, the discussion inevitably moved on to Brexit. It’s worth a few minutes of your time to listen to what Mr Bondy had to say.

Not only did he imply that the UK is not equipped to take on the task of negotiating ‘freer’ trade deals (just imagine the resources Canada deployed for USMCA), but by no longer protecting our biggest and closest or ‘home market’ of >350 million (i.e. the EU) we would enter into any future negotiations from a position of weakness, with a ‘home market’ of just 65 million. This is an approach that just doesn’t make sense from a trade point of view.

JR-M et al. take note!

So what now? One pace forward, please, Baldrick!


As a postscript, I should just mention that in a recent Brexit post I did state that I didn’t expect to write much more on this topic. I just couldn’t help myself.


¹ For my followers overseas, I must explain. Baldrick was a character in the four series comedy program Blackadder aired by the BBC in the 1980s. Baldrick (played by Tony, now Sir Tony, Robinson) was the dogsbody of the main character Edmund Blackadder, played by Rowan (‘Mr Bean’) Atkinson. Whenever a difficult situation arose from which Blackadder and Baldrick had to extricate themselves, Baldrick had his ‘cunning plan’, always and immediately dismissed by Blackadder.

For Baldrick and Blackadder read Theresa May (and others) and Michel Barnier (the EU Chief negotiator)?

In the context of this blog post therefore, a ‘Baldrick cunning plan’ is probably no more silly or outrageous than any other that I’ve yet heard – apart from remaining as a member of the European Union.

² Theresa May came on stage at her party’s annual conference today to give her keynote speech ‘dancing’ to the ABBA song Dancing Queen. I wondered if the Tories got permission to use this track. Embarrassing, to say the least.

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (5): Magnificent mansions

Cornwall is home to several National Trust jewels. We visited these four:

  • St Michael’s Mount, on an island in Mount’s Bay off Marazion in the south of the county
  • Lanhydrock, close to the A30 near Bodmin
  • Cotehele House and Quay, overlooking the River Tamar, north of Plymouth
  • Trerice, close to Newquay on the north coast

Knowing how popular St Michael’s Mount can be (even slightly out of season, as we were), Steph and I decided to head to Marazion early on the day of our visit, so we could easily find a parking place. I guess we must have been there before 9:30 am, and knew we’d have to take the boat over to the island as the tide was still ebbing then and the causeway was still covered.

Parking was no problem. However, when we returned from our visit to the island just before 2 pm, visitors were streaming across the open causeway in the hundreds, and it seemed as if every parking place was already taken in the several car parks along the sea front.

Just before 10 the first passenger boat of the day pulled up alongside the jetty, and about eight persons clambered aboard. Since the sea was calm, there being no waiting queue of visitors, and it being the first boat, the boatman suggested going right round the island instead of just across directly to the harbor on the island. What a treat, as we had many different views of the island and buildings that would not have seen on a normal crossing.

St Michael’s Mount (the Cornish equivalent of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, although not quite so grand perhaps) was originally home to a 12th century priory, and there is evidence of human occupation over several thousand years. It has a rich history.  It became the home of the St Aubyn family in the late 17th century, and the family continues to occupy the Victorian wing. in the 19th century there was a village and thriving community of several hundred residents living below the castle.

A visit to St Michael’s Mount includes not only a tour of the house, and its magnificent views over Mount’s Bay, but the gardens below the castle that have been built into and cling to the cliff face. We were told by our boatman that the four resident gardeners are also qualified abseilers! It’s quite a steep climb up to the castle, but well worth the effort.

By the time the causeway had opened and hundreds of visitors were pouring across, access to the house was becoming difficult. We had made the tour earlier, and even then passing the narrow entrance caused significant tailbacks.

Nevertheless, no visit to Cornwall would be complete without a visit to St Michael’s Mount. Its inaccessibility for half of the day just adds to its attraction. Check out more photos of the interiors and gardens here.


Lanhydrock, just a mile or so off the A30 near Bodmin) is special for two reasons: so many of the rooms (>50) are open to the public, and the Long Gallery in the north wing) and its magnificent 17th century plastered ceiling survived the 1881 fire that gutted most of the rest of house. The house is U-shaped; an east wing was demolished in the 18th century. It has been the family home of the Robartes for four centuries.

The weather for our visit was overcast with a little drizzle. As we wanted to visit Restormel Castle in nearby Lostwithiel later in the day, we decided to forego a walk around the park, just viewing the gardens and parterre close to the house.

You can take a virtual tour of the house and gardens here. There’s no doubt that Lanhydrock is one of the National Trust’s ‘premier’ properties full of exquisite objects that passed to the Trust when it acquired ownership in 1953. Definitely one of the properties that should be on everyone’s National Trust bucket list.


The first question I asked one of the volunteers when we arrived at Cotehele House was how to pronounce ‘Cotehele’. It’s ‘cot-eel’ apparently.

And it’s also one of the National Trust gems, having so many exquisite tapestries on display. The house dates from the late 15th century but then had 16th century Tudor additions, and is built I guess from local granite, a lovely soft grey color. It was the home of the Edgcumbe family. Passing through a small courtyard, you enter the Great Hall, on to the chapel, and up to the treasures of the first floor and above.

Cotehele has terraced gardens beside the house, and others slightly further away. The Valley Garden follows a steep-sided valley from the terraces to the River Tamar, and Cotehele Quay and Mill.

Have a look at more Cotehele treasures here.


Trerice is an Elizabethan, 16th century manor situated a few miles inland from Newquay on Cornwall’s north coast. We visited this delightful house on our last day in Cornwall, on the way back to our holiday home after a visit to Tintagel Castle.

The Arundell family inherited Trerice more than 700 years ago. It passed to the Aclands in the late 17th century. In the 20th century, the Elton family took on a lease from the National Trust and carried out some major refurbishments, including replacing the roof.

There is some particularly smart plasterwork in several rooms, as well as impressive oil paintings.

Outside there is an attractive knot garden, and other horticultural attractions like a 1km mowhay.

An archaeological dig was underway behind the house on the day of our visit.

More photographs of this dig and exterior/interior views of the house are available in this album.


These are the other four stories in this Cornwall series:

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (1): The journey south . . . and back

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (2): Coast to coast

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (3): Stepping back in time

Kernow a’gas dynergh – Welcome to Cornwall (4): An impressive horticultural legacy


For those interested in photography, I use a Nikon D5000 DSLR, with a Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6 GII ED VR lens.

Flash photography is not permitted inside National Trust properties, so that means shooting with the slowest speed I can get away with, since all my photos are hand held. Often I’m shooting as slow as 1/15, and 3200 ASA. All the interiors at these four properties were photographed in this way. It’s remarkable how the colors of the tapestries at Cotehele, for example, are revealed. I’m getting quite the dab hand at holding my breath as I’m about to press the shutter.