Of Prime Ministers and Presidents . . .

Earlier today, I was lying in bed sipping a mug of tea and listening to the news on BBC Radio 4. And wondering what progress (or lack thereof) there had been regarding negotiations between the Tories and Labour to resolve the Brexit impasse that has bedeviled politics in this country for far too long.

I couldn’t help speculating that this whole Brexit debacle will be the one and only thing that Prime Minister Theresa May will be remembered for. Political legacies are the basis of history. So whenever some historian or other comes to analyze her legacy, the Brexit negotiations will be at the top of any list, whether they actually lead to Brexit or not. We’ll find out over the next week. Maybe.

Then, that got me thinking about earlier Prime Ministers and what they are remembered for. Not necessarily their full legacies. And Presidents of the United States as well. One of the reasons for this is that I can think of no point in my lifetime (I was born in November 1948) when there were two more inept occupants of No 10 Downing Street and the White House.

While I can recall Presidents of other countries, of France, of Peru, Costa Rica, or the Philippines where I lived for many years, or countries like South Africa that had leaders who performed on the world stage, like Nelson Mandela for example, or his predecessor, FW de Klerk, the last apartheid head of state, even German Chancellors, I’m much more familiar with US politics and political figures.

Why my interest in US politics? That began in January 1973, when I moved to Peru, and my weekly news roundup came courtesy of Time and Newsweek. It was, after all, also the time of Watergate. And I’ve followed US politics closely ever since. However, let’s start with Prime Ministers.


Since November 1948 there have been fifteen Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom (Harold Wilson headed two separate administrations).*

L-R: Clement Attlee (Labour), Jul 1945-Oct 1951; Sir Winston Churchill (Conservative), Oct 1951-Apr 1955; Sir Anthony Eden (Conservative), Apr 1955-Jan 1957.

L-R: Harold Macmillan (Conservative), Jan 1957-Oct 1963; Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Oct 1963-Oct 1964; Harold Wilson (Labour), Oct 1964-Jun 1970.

L-R: Edward Heath (Conservative), June 1970-Mar 1974; Harold Wilson (Labour), Mar 1974-Apr 1976; James Callaghan (Labour), Apr 1976-May 1979.

L-R: Margaret Thatcher (Conservative), May 1979-Nov 1990; John Major (Conservative), Nov 1990-May 1997; Tony Blair (Labour), May 1997-Jun 2007.

L-R: Gordon Brown (Labour), Jun 2007-May 2010; David Cameron (Conservative, in coalition with Lib Dems), May 2010-Jul 2016; Theresa May (Conservative), Jul 2016-present.

So what are these fourteen individuals remembered for, good or bad?

My first recollections of politics in the UK came with the administration of Sir Anthony Eden. His time in office must surely be remembered for the Suez Crisis (or second Arab-Israeli War) of late 1956, when UK and French forces waded in on the side of Israel to seize control of the Suez Canal. What I particularly remember was rationing of petrol (gasoline), and using coupons to purchase fuel for the car. The UK’s subsequent humiliation led to Eden’s resignation shortly afterwards.

In 1945, the Labour Party led by Clement Attlee surprisingly won a General Election, defeating the Conservatives led by Sir Winston Churchill, the successful war-time Prime Minister. Undoubtedly, Clement’s legacy is the foundation of the National Health Service (NHS), in July 1947. I was approximately the 190,063rd baby born under the NHS!

Churchill had his political revenge in 1951. While his second administration oversaw the end of hostilities of the Korean War, and an armistice, there was a deepening of the Cold War that had commenced immediately after the end of Second World War. Churchill had coined the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’ in 1946.

On Eden’s resignation, Harold Macmillan became leader of the Conservatives and Prime Minister, and headed an administration that saw the first sustained economic revival since the war. Macmillan is famous for two sayings. The first, Most of our people have never had it so good (from a speech in 1957) relates to the growing economic prosperity. The second, I was determined that no British government should be brought down by the action of two tarts, concerns the 1963 political scandal, the Profumo Affair, that irreparably damaged Macmillan’s government. Macmillan resigned in October that year.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home became Prime Minister on Macmillan’s retirement (having renounced his peerage, as the 14th Earl of Home), and headed a Conservative administration for just one year, being defeated in the October 1964 General Election by the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson. Douglas-Home is perhaps best remembered for his stint (1960-1963) as Foreign Secretary rather than his premiership.

Wilson won the 1964 election with a majority of just four MPs. In 1967, his government was forced to devalue the currency, the GB pound (£), and Wilson is remembered (and criticized) for his pound in your pocket speech in which he assured listeners that the pound had not lost its value. In 1965, during Wilson’s first administration, the political decision was made (on cost grounds) to cancel the TSR-2 strike and reconnaissance aircraft, considered one of the most sophisticated planes to have been designed in the UK. As one aeronautical engineer said at the time, All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.

The first Wilson administration saw the outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which intensified and continued right up to the administration of Tony Blair in 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Labour Party was defeated in the June 1970 General Election (the first election I ever voted in) by the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Heath’s administration lasted just under four years. But his significant contribution was to lead the country into membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1973 (just as I was leaving to work in Peru). Forty-six years later the nation is divided over its continued membership of the European Union (successor to the EEC and European Community, EC).

Harold Wilson returned to power in the 1974 General Election. Continued membership of the EC was at the forefront of UK politics. In an unprecedented move in the nation’s political history, a referendum was held on 5 June 1975 in which a substantial majority voted for continued membership. How times have changed!

Wilson resigned in March 1976, and was replaced by his Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan. Callaghan’s government lasted just three years, buffeted by economic stresses, and his downfall followed the disastrous 1978-79 Winter of Discontent.

In 1979, the nation had its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She had ousted Edward Heath as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. Her premiership is remembered for three issues. First was her forceful response to the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentina in April-June 1982. But two issues eventually brought her down. The introduction of the Community Charge (commonly known as the Poll Tax) in 1989 was highly unpopular. Industrial relations during her premiership also deteriorated. The Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 was a major industrial action in protest at the closure of coal pits. It was prolonged, violent at times, and divided communities, many of which have hardly yet recovered the loss of jobs. By November 1990, Thatcher had been visited by senior Tory politicians and told to go. She resigned and was replaced by her Chancellor, John Major.

I left the UK in July 1991 to work in the Philippines, returning in May 2010, just before a General Election in which I was not eligible to vote. Thus I have very little direct experience of the premierships of John Major, and his successors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (both Labour leaders).

John Major was Prime Minister during the first Gulf War in 1991. He helped negotiate the Maastricht Treaty that same year that led to further European integration and the formation of the European Union. After the government withdrew the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992, there was a fall in confidence in Conservative economic policies, a situation from which Major hardly recovered. However, he remained in office until May 1997, and even won a General Election. Under John Major the privatization of British Railways began; the monopoly was broken up and individual franchises sold to operate the nation’s rail system.

Tony Blair led Labour to a landslide victory over the Tories in the General Election of May 1997. Blair, at age 43, was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812. He went on to win two more elections in 2001 and 2005. He had very high popularity ratings for his handling of the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in August 1997. Under his administration the Human Rights and the National Minimum Wage Acts were introduced, and the Good Friday Agreement finally brought peace to Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, Tony Blair will probably be remembered most for his cozy foreign policy relationship with US President George W Bush and his involvement of UK forces in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. For these actions he will never be forgiven by a significant portion of the population, and it’s fair to say that his reputation has been permanently damaged despite the many good things achieved by his centrist Labour administration. Blair resigned on 27 June 2007, and Gordon Brown (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) immediately assumed the premiership.

Gordon Brown was in office until May 2010 when he was defeated by David Cameron and the Conservatives. His most notable achievement was to steer the nation through all the challenges of the 2008 global recession, bailing out the banks and helping to stabilize financial systems here and around the world.

David Cameron did not achieve a House of Commons majority in the May 2010 election, and was forced to seek support of the Lib Dems in a coalition government. Budget austerity was the watchword of this government, the introduction of tuition fees for university students, and other financial measures from which the nation is still suffering. This was also a consequence of the recession before Cameron came to power.

One of the early pieces of legislation from the Coalition was the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, that has had its consequences subsequently.

Cameron also sought to negotiate revised membership terms for the UK in the European Union and, as a sop to the right wing faction in his party, he foolishly promised to hold a referendum on continued membership of the EU if the Tories were returned to power in 2015. He didn’t expect to win an outright majority, and when he did, he was in hock to anti-EU factions among his MPs.

The fateful referendum was held on 23 June 2016, and although Remain was official government policy, the result was a Leave majority of 52 to 48%. A decision that we continue to rue three years on. On losing the referendum, Cameron immediately resigned leaving the contest wide open for his successor. Although originally a favorite to succeed Cameron, Brexiteer Boris Johnson withdrew before polling began among Tory MPs and constituency members, leaving former Home Secretary Theresa May as the only candidate. She became Prime Minister on 11 July 2016.

And she has proven to be one of the most inept politicians I can ever remember, without empathy (viz. her response to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in June 2017 around the time of the general Election), a cold fish, who has led the nation down a disastrous Brexit path. She was so inept as to call an early General Election in 2017 (despite the Fixed-term Parliaments Act), losing her overall majority, and since then propped up by ten Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland. But due to major policy splits in her own party, she has been unable to push through her EU Withdrawal Agreement. It has been defeated three times in the past eight weeks, and unless something comes of the discussions between the Conservatives and Labour over the next week, the UK will crash out of the EU on 12 April. Theresa May will also be remembered, and in a very bad light, for her anti-immigration stance and policies she introduced when Home Secretary.

Fortunately, it seems she will not be Prime Minister for much longer. But will it be a question of out of the frying pan and into the fire? Boris Johnson as her replacement? Heaven forfend!

Let’s now turn to the Presidents of the Unites States, or POTUS.


From Harry Truman to Donald Trump, there have been thirteen Presidents of the United States since 1948.

L-R: Harry S Truman (33rd, Democrat), 1945-1953; Dwight D Eisenhower (34th, Republican), 1953-1961; John F Kennedy (35th, Democrat), 1961-1963.

L-R: Lyndon B Johnson (36th, Democrat), 1963-1969; Richard M Nixon (37th, Republican) 1969-1974; Gerald Ford (38th, Republican) 1974-1977.

L-R: Jimmy Carter (39th, Democrat) 1977-1981; Ronald Reagan (40th, Republican) 1981-1989; George HW Bush (41st, Republican) 1989-1993.

L-R: Bill Clinton (42nd, Democrat) 1993-2001; George W Bush (43rd, Republican) 2001-2009; Barack Obama (44th, Democrat) 2009-2017; Donald J Trump (45th, Republican) 2017-present.

Harry Truman assumed the presidency on 12 April 1945 on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt. Truman will undoubtedly be remembered as the first head of state to authorize the use of atomic weapons, with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. The Cold War began under his presidency. He was responsible for the Berlin Airlift in 1948, but also saw the start of the Korean War. He famously won re-election in 1948, defeating Thomas Dewey; even newspapers had gone to press declaring Dewey as the winner.

Truman was succeeded by General Dwight Eisenhower who had been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War. Eisenhower served two terms. This was the era of the Cold War. And one consequence of that was the 1960 U-2 spyplane incident during his last year in office. The US Interstate Highway System was inaugurated during his presidency.

The presidency of John F Kennedy was all too short. It had promised so much more, but an assassin’s bullet robbed the nation of that promise in November 1963. I remember vividly the moment that programs were suspended on TV in the UK to announce his death. And what grief there was, not just in the USA, but globally.

In May 1961, Kennedy announced a plan to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth before the end of the decade. He did not live to see that dream realized eight years later.

In August 1961, the East Germans under Soviet encouragement began to build the Berlin Wall, that was to remain in place for the next 28 years. Kennedy visited Berlin in June 1963, making his famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech.

Perhaps Kennedy will be remembered for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. It was a period of heightened tension that we also felt in the UK. I clearly remember waiting in class on that fateful day, wondering if Armageddon was about to happen. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev backed down. Crisis averted.

Who knows what Kennedy would have achieved, despite his prolific womanizing, had his life not been cut short.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the 36th POTUS on Kennedy’s death. He served out the rest of Kennedy’s term, and won one for himself in 1964, but did not seek re-election to a second term as he was entitled to do in 1968. Johnson has two legacies. Let me state the positive one first: his enactment of Civil Rights Act in 1964, and other progressive legislation.

But he was also responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War, that damaged his credibility with the electorate.

Democrats lost the White House in the election of 1968, that brought Richard Milhous Nixon to power. And how he abused that power. Nixon is synonymous with Watergate, impeachment proceedings, and resignation. Yet, Nixon had two significant achievements: rapprochement with China in 1972, and détente with the Soviet Union leading to the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Nixon had already lost his Vice President Spiro Agnew to scandal before he himself was forced from office. Several months later, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford was appointed Vice President, and assumed the presidency on Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. He was the first person to have held both the Vice Presidency and Presidency without being elected to office. Perhaps Ford will be best remembered for his September 1974 full and unconditional pardon for any crimes [Nixon] might have committed against the United States while president. Ford lost the 1976 election to Georgia governor and outsider Jimmy Carter.

Carter served only one term. His denouement was the Iran hostage crisis that lasted from November 1979 to January 1981. He was perceived as a weak leader, the rescue of the hostages in Tehran having failed. The crisis ultimately led to Carter losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. Minutes after Reagan was sworn into office the hostages were released by Iran.

Since leaving the presidency in 1981, Carter and his wife Rosalind have shown themselves to be exemplary citizens through their work to wage peace, fight disease and build hope. Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in March 1981, just a few weeks after his inauguration as the 40th POTUS. A former governor of California, Reagan took the Republican Party to a more conservative side of politics. While he will be remembered for his escalation of the Cold War (his ‘Star Wars’ initiative) after a period of better relations with the Soviet Union under Jimmy Carter, Reagan nevertheless attended the Reyjavik summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the end of the Cold War and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.

Reagan was re-elected in 1984, defeating Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, Minnesotan Walter Mondale.

George HW Bush was elected as 41st POTUS, and served just one term. He was defeated by Arkansan Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign. Bush was a Second World War fighter ace in the US Navy, and one of the youngest to serve in that capacity.

The most significant event of Bush’s presidency was the Gulf War, that pushed Saddam Hussein back from his occupation of Kuwait, but left much unfinished business that would be completed by his son George W Bush who was elected as the 43rd president in 2000.

Bill Clinton will undoubtedly be remembered for just one thing: the Monica Lewinsky scandal that almost led to his impeachment. Clinton, in my opinion, was one of the most gifted speakers I have ever heard. Without notes or teleprompters he could hold an audience spellbound as he embraced a wide range of topics in his speeches. The economy boomed under his presidency, and he left office with one of the highest approval ratings ever.

George W Bush came to the presidency somewhat controversially. It was all about hanging chads and the recount in Florida that eventually handed the election to Bush. Later in 2001 he was faced with the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, that then led on to the invasions of Afghanistan and Irag, that I alluded to earlier.

With the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, as the 44th POTUS, the presidency entered an eight year period of relative calm, but above all decency. Obama is a charismatic orator, but perhaps his presidency did not achieve as much as was hoped for or expected. His signature achievement was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that was signed into law in March 2010. It must have been significant because ever since No 45 assumed the presidency he and Senate Republicans have been doing their darndest to repeal the Act. The same can be said for other legislation and initiatives that Obama sponsored. Donald Trump seems hell bent on eradicating any aspect of Obama’s legacy.

And, at last, that brings me on to Donald J Trump, No 45, elected to the presidency with around 3 million fewer votes in the popular vote than his Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton, but squeaked in through winning the Electoral College 304 to 227.

What can I say about Donald Trump that has not been said more eloquently elsewhere? He is perhaps the most odious and inept (and allegedly corrupt) individual elected to the presidency. However, whatever happens over the next 18 months before the 2020 election, and whether Trump is re-elected, he has already secured a legacy. How? He has achieved something, twice, that all presidents aspire to but rarely do. Two of his nominees were appointed Justices on the Supreme Court, thereby ensuring a conservative bias on the bench, and Trump influencing a conservative political agenda for decades to come. He may even yet have a third nominee appointed. It depends if and when octogenarian Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbs to ill health (or worse) and a replacement has to be found.

But how would I sum up his presidency to date? There is but one word: NARCISSISM.

The presidency, what he says, what he does, how he interacts with others all comes down to just one thing: himself. It affects his whole outlook on the world, his embrace of ‘fake news’, his weak relationship with the truth, his attacks on friends and foes alike.

Never have we seen the like in the White House. Donald Trump makes even Richard Nixon look presidential. And that’s saying something.


* All images of Prime Ministers and US Presidents from Wikipedia.

You’d be hard-pushed to be ‘one over the eight’ in Bromsgrove (updated 18 April)

One thing has caught my attention while out exploring Bromsgrove (in northeast Worcestershire) on foot: how few public houses (or pubs as they are more commonly known) there are in the town. My walks cover an area within a 1½ to 2 mile radius from home, encompassing the town center and immediate surrounding area.

If one was to visit every pub within this area of Bromsgrove (each marked with a green beer mug on the map), and drank a half pint of beer in each, it would be quite an achievement to become inebriated, or as the colloquial saying goes, ‘one over the eight‘. There are just 13 pubs within easy walking distance of home, and the majority lie on the Birmingham-Worcester Roads close to the town center.

There were a few more pubs in the past, but that does not explain the low number (much less than half) compared to Congleton in east Cheshire (where I was born in 1948) and Leek in North Staffordshire, where my family moved in 1956. These towns have many more pubs than Bromsgrove, with around 30+ and between 50 and 60, respectively. When I was growing up in Leek and living in the Market Place in the 1960s, there were at least a dozen pubs within just a couple of hundred meters from home.

Why can’t I provide accurate pub counts? Well, based on the information I’ve received, it depends on what is classified as a pub, and the area taken into account. For the purposes of this post, I’m considering only Bromsgrove pubs in a ‘traditional’ sense, i.e., a premises (often owned by a brewery) where one can walk in and order a glass of beer at the bar. And they often have an interesting or quirky name, such The Red Lion, The Duke of York, or Dog & Pheasant, for example.

Many pubs have become eating places as well and, for some, the sale of beer and other beverages is almost secondary now to the catering side of the business. I have not considered wine bars and the like as ‘pubs’. We have a few of these in Bromsgrove.


Congleton, Leek, and Bromsgrove are old market towns, and have a comparable population: 26,500 for Congleton; 20,800 for Leek, and 29,000 for Bromsgrove (census data from 2011 and 2001). However, if the wider Bromsgrove/Catshill urban area is taken into consideration (that I always think of as ‘Bromsgrove’) then its population is almost 40,000.

Tracing the drinking history of any town can be interesting, but not without its pitfalls. It has been achieved successfully, however, by Leek local historian, Neil Collingwood, who recently published a book about the town’s pubs. Leek apparently has boasted 150 pubs over the centuries!


As far as Bromsgrove is concerned, I have marked (in the map below) all the pubs I come across during my walks (within that 1½-2 mile radius) with a green beer mug symbol; except for my local, The Red Lion which has a red beer mug. Those outside my normal routes, or too far on foot, are shown in purple. Black beer mugs indicate pubs that have closed. Just expand the map to see more detail.

There is at least one image for each pub; just click on the beer mug symbol. Many of these images I have taken myself, but others were captured (under fair use) from Google Maps Streetview, and acknowledged thus.

It’s interesting to note, but not surprising, that many of the pubs follow the route of the main highway south from Birmingham through Bromsgrove to Worcester. This is/was the A38 Birmingham Road/Worcester Road that bisects the town into two almost equal west and east sides. And I guess some of the hostelries must have catered to coaches and their passengers before the railway came to Bromsgrove in June 1840, east of the town. The Ladybird (formerly The Dragoon) was built at Aston Fields in 1905 to serve the railway. It’s close to the site of the old station. In 2016, the new station opened a few hundred meters south.

The Ladybird at Aston Fields. The access road to the rail station (New Road) is on the right.

New Road/Kidderminster Road bisect the town almost equally north and south, and meet the A38 in the town center at the High Street, now closed permanently to traffic (but was still open when we moved to Bromsgrove in 1981). The A38 was also diverted around the town along the Bromsgrove Eastern By-Pass (A38) around the same year.


The Red Lion on Bromsgrove High Street, right in the center of town, is a 10 minute walk or so from home. It serves great beer, and always has several ‘guest’ beers on tap. It used to be quite dingy (although the beer has always been good). The 2007 smoking ban made such a difference, when the landlord took the opportunity to refurbish inside. It has undergone a couple more internal facelifts since then.

All this interest in pubs must give the impression that I’m always frequenting one or another. Not so!

In fact I have only been in four of the pubs shown on the map. Besides The Red Lion, I’ve been in The Ladybird (enjoying several pints of Bathams Bitter) a few times. Steph and I once went to The Gate Hangs Well southeast from Bromsgrove. It closed at least a couple of years ago, and is marked on the map as a black beer mug outlier. And then there’s The Swan, shown in purple at the northern range of symbols on the map, in Fairfield. We used to go there during our home-leaves for a meal and some good Marstons Bitter. But we haven’t been there in recent years.

Memo to self: I should research all these pubs some more—both physically and through searching historical accounts on the Internet.


So why are there fewer pubs in Bromgrove? Well, the only thing that comes readily to mind is the difference between Congleton/Leek and Bromsgrove in terms of industry.

Both Congleton and Leek were once textile towns, with thriving silk weaving mills (and others); Leek also had dye works exploiting the soft water flowing in the River Churnet. These industries declined since the 1960s.

Were so many pubs opened to serve workers in these mills? While many of the workers would have been women at one time, surely when they opened and expanded in the 19th century many more men were occupied then. Many dry throats to satisfy.

Bromsgrove had a lot of cottage industries, such as nail making and the like. But not the widespread industrial employment that characterized Congleton and Leek.

Apart from the forge works, known as Garringtons. In 1946, Garringtons acquired Deritend Stamping Limited of Newton Works, Bromsgrove [established in 1940] in order to expand production of castings for the automotive industry. Newton Works eventually covered 50 acres, and gave employment to 3,100 people. The works (United Engineering Forgings) closed in 2002.

Garringtons was sited on the east side of the town (map), south of and alongside the mainline railway. Since its closure, the Garringtons site has been redeveloped for housing known collectively as Breme Park.

There were no pubs near Garringtons, apart from The Ladybird, and the Aston Fields Sports & Social Club on Stoke Road (shown as a blue beer mug on the map). I’m not sure if one has to be a member of the club to drink there. The Sugarbrook used to stand at the crossroads of the A38 By-Pass and Charford and Stoke Roads. I’m not sure when it was first built. It was demolished in 2012 and the site now boasts a KFC drive thru!


As I’ve said, there’s more research to be carried out. I’ll post again as and when I uncover more details.

In the meantime, Cheers!


18 April

I’ve just discovered two more pubs. One, the Golden Lion, is on Austin Road on the Charford district, just over a mile south of home. But an area I’ve never walked before.

The other, the Royal Oak, is on the north side of town in Catshill.

Walking with my mobile: [2] Exploring my hometown

When Steph and I moved back to the UK in 1981 from Peru, we had to find somewhere to live that was not too far from Birmingham. I’d been appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology, so needed a base from which to conveniently commute. We’d already decided that we didn’t want to live in Birmingham, so began to look in the area covered by an arc from the west, south and southeast of the city.

Bromsgrove, some 13 or so miles south of Birmingham, was the first town we visited. It’s a straightforward drive south from the university, and was an obvious first choice. In any case, we’d already seen some property flyers for a couple of properties there that had caught our attention.

And in less than a week we had settled on the house that we bought. And we have ‘lived’ there since July of that year. I say ‘lived’ because a decade later I accepted a position at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. For almost 19 years, our house remained empty (although fully furnished) until we moved back on my retirement in April 2010.

I then realized just how little of Bromsgrove I actually knew, or had explored during the 1980s. I also needed some activity to keep me fit. In the Philippines I’d been reasonably active in the decade leading up to my retirement, enjoying scuba diving, badminton twice a week, and swimming at the weekends. So I took to walking on a daily basis (mostly). And I try to walk a minimum of two miles or 45 minutes each outing, often quite a bit more, and began to explore Bromsgrove.

Our home lies to the east of Bromsgrove town center, near the junction of New Road and the Bromsgrove Eastern By-Pass (A38). My Bromsgrove walks cover an area within a 1½ to 2 mile radius from home, west almost to the M5 motorway, and east to the Worcester and Birmingham canal.

Here is a small sample of five walks that I have made in the past ten days. I have plotted each of the routes in Google maps, with red via points indicating that a photo (maybe two or three) is attached. Just click on a red point to open the image. I have added grey via points to fill in some of the ‘gaps’ in the routes.


23 March (2.47 miles | 52 minutes)
This is one of my frequent railway walks, taking in the bridge over the mainline to Worcester and the West Country. I had actually planned a much longer walk on this day, but when I arrived at the bridge, I discovered that further progress was blocked as the public footpath had been closed (indicated with a blue via point). The bridge used to be a great location for trainspotting, but since electrification of the line, safety barriers have been constructed on all three bridges over the railway restricting the view from each.

Looking north towards the new station at Bromsgrove, that was ‘electrified’ in 2017.

From the bridge, this walk eventually ends up at the roundabout in Aston Fields. On this occasion, I followed the footpath alongside the railway to join Finstall Road a little way north. Then it was back home from there.


24 March (5.16 miles | 1 hour 51 minutes)
This is one of my longer walks, as far as the Worcester and Birmingham Canal (constructed in 1815), north along part the Tardebigge flight of 30 locks (the longest in the UK over 2 miles), as far as the Tardebigge Reservoir, then west back across the fields to home.

A narrowboat passes through the lock below Tardebigge Reservoir (that supplies water to the canal). From here, this walk takes me west towards home.


25 March (4.67 miles | 1 hour 40 minutes)
This is a route that I’ve walked on just a few occasions, taking me to the northwest of the town center. But it’s interesting to see that side of the town, where urban and rural meet, and farmers are ploughing their fields and keeping sheep, right up against the M5 motorway. Then I head south back towards Sanders Park on the south side of the town center, and from there back along the by-pass to home.

This the public bridleway connecting Perryfields Road with Crabmill Lane. The fields either side were sown with barley in 2018. The spire of St John’s Church can be seen on the horizon, left of center.


27 March (2.42 miles | 51 minutes)
This walk follows a route along New Road into Bromsgrove town center, then through the High Street, on to the Stourbridge Road, before heading southeast once again and back home.

The statue of Bromsgrove poet AE Housman in the center of the High Street.

All Saints’ Church on the Birmingham Road.


1 April (4.2 miles | 1 hour 30 minutes)
I’d set out on this walk intending just to take a few photos for another blog post I’m preparing. But since it was such a fine day, I decided to venture further afield, mainly south from home.

Looking north along Rock Hill towards Bromsgrove town center. The spire of St John’s Church can be seen on the center horizon. This spire dominates the Bromsgrove landscape for miles around.


 

Everyone’s a taxonomist

I’ve just discovered (via Twitter) that 19 March was Taxonomist Appreciation Day. This was, as far as I can make out, a celebration of the important—fundamental even—contribution that biologists known as taxonomists make to our understanding of the living world. Taxonomists bring order to the biodiversity that’s all around us. Indeed, without this order and understanding, it would be more difficult to know for example which plants and animals are endangered, and to prioritize what to conserve, and where.

The most celebrated taxonomist of all was surely the eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (whose Latinized name, Linnaeus, identifies him as the taxonomic authority, L., for many plants and animals).

So what do taxonomists do? One of their important roles is to describe and catalogue all plants and animals and, in the case of plants, publish this information in compendia known as Floras as an aid to identification, like those written about the plants of the British Isles and Europe that have been studied for hundreds of years.

Other Floras are still being written. Take the Flora Zambesiaca, for example, a project started in 1960 as the taxonomic study of native and naturalised plants of the Zambezi River basin, covering the territories of Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the Caprivi Strip. This is a work in progress, and there are many other parts of the world where the diversity of plants is only now being discovered and documented, particularly in the Tropics.

But taxonomists also look at the variation within species, and assess the dynamics of species distribution and evolution.


Mr Les Watson

I had my first taste of taxonomy at the University of Southampton where, as first year students or freshmen in 1967/68, we studied the diversity of flowering plants under the tuition of taxonomist Les Watson. He and another colleague Alan Myers took us to the west coast of Ireland for a field course in July 1968 where we studied the vegetation of the Burren in Co Clare.

Professor Vernon Heywood

In my final or senior year in 1970, I sat in on a plant taxonomy course given by eminent taxonomist Professor Vernon Heywood from the University of Reading (Les Watson had moved to Australia in 1968/69, and had not been replaced in the Department of Botany). I met up with Professor Heywood in 1991 at a conference in Rome where we had an opportunity to reminisce about that course.

I never expected that, one day, I would engage in taxonomic research. However, I never participated in describing or naming plant species, nor undertaking the enormous task of contributing to Floras that is sometimes considered the be-all and end-all of taxonomists’ work. I take my hat off to those taxonomists who write Floras, often relying on dried herbarium specimens of plants collected in nature. Nevertheless, in my own work, I have used herbaria on occasion, and twice spent time looking at specimens of lentil (Lens culinaris Medik.) and grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.) among the millions of herbarium sheets curated in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. My interest was in the relationships of these cultivated plants and their wild relatives.

Comparing notes in the field in the Andes of central Peru with potato taxonomist Professor Jack Hawkes (who supervised my PhD dissertation).

In 1973 I joined the International Potato Center in Peru as an Associate Taxonomist, studying the evolution of cultivated potatoes. Biosystematics, a sub-discipline of plant taxonomy, was my field, and I investigated species relationships through field experiments to understand patterns of morphological variation, through breeding experiments, and cytogenetic analysis of chromosome pairing in hybrids, among other several different approaches.

When I returned to Birmingham in 1981 as Lecturer in Plant Biology, I continued research on wild potatoes, and also several legume species. I also contributed about half the lectures to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy.

On moving to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in July 1991, my colleagues and I delved into the taxonomy and species relationships of the two cultivated species of rice, Oryza sativa L. and O. glaberrima Steud., and the 20 or so wild species in the genus Oryza. We published quite extensively, and you you can peruse a list of rice publications (many with PDF files) here.


Just last week I met up for lunch with six retired former colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham: three plant scientists (including me), three geneticists, and a zoologist. Inevitably we began to discuss not only the administrative and organization changes that had occurred at the university (I taught there between 1981 and 1991), but how the teaching of biology had also changed, and the topics that now form a core biology curriculum.

Back in the day, whole organism biology still formed an important component of an undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Birmingham. Nowadays, and for obvious reasons, there’s much more focus on molecular biology, and recent hirings in what is now the School of Biosciences (Biological Sciences and Biochemistry merged some years back) reflect that change of emphasis.

Alas, it’s no longer possible to study at Birmingham for a biology degree with a plant sciences focus. But that’s not just a Birmingham issue; it’s nationwide. And taxonomy is perhaps the discipline that has suffered more than most. Taxonomists are just not coming through the system. Just at the time when one can argue there should be more demand for taxonomists than ever before, given the environmental changes that threaten the world’s vegetation. In some regions we may be losing species even before they have been identified. Harvard biologist EO Wilson wrote this in 2017: Our incomplete taxonomic knowledge impedes our attempts to protect biodiversity. A renaissance in the classification of species and their interactions is needed to guide conservation prioritization [1].


Now, I started this piece stating that everyone is a taxonomist. Is that a fair assumption?I think so.

Appa Rao collecting upland rice varieties from a farmer in the Lao PDR.

Taxonomy (and classification) is a fundamental human characteristic, something we do every day. We sort the complex world around us into meaningful categories, and we give them names. In many societies, farmers and their husbands use so-called ‘folk taxonomies’ to manage the various crops grown, and often the diversity of different varieties within a crop. I have myself talked to potato farmers in the Andes of southern Peru about their cultivation of different varieties, and why these are grown in different ways. In the Lao PDR, with my colleague Dr Appa Rao, we looked at how farmers name all their rice varieties.

Even before talking to my second year students about flowering plant taxonomy as such (and the different approaches used to study variation), I asked them to practice some simple taxonomies on themselves: males vs. females, blondes vs. brunettes, spectacle users vs. non-users, for example. These are discrete characteristics, binary, one or the other. Then we’d look at the complexity of coping with characters that vary quantitatively, such as height, length, etc.

Fortunately, there are many numerical techniques that allow us to cope with all sorts of measurements, and reduce complexity to a state that can be interpreted more easily.

The classification of different rice species based on the measurement and analysis of a range of morphological characters.

The use of different molecular markers now allows us to refine taxonomies built using morphological data. But, as I once read in a letter published in a scientific journal, a professor of taxonomy decried the lack of basic species knowledge among many students using molecular approaches. They could wax lyrical, he stated, about the value of different molecular techniques, but they had hardly looked at a living plant. That brings me back to my concern about the reduction in teaching whole organism biology.

As I say, we are all taxonomists, one way or another. Unfortunately I don’t see any scientific expansion (in the UK at least) in this particular discipline.

The situation may be different in North America. Plant sciences are still very strong in many US universities, and indeed there is a bill before Congress that promotes botanical research & sciences capacity, generates demand for native plant materials, & authorizes related federal activities.


[1] Wilson, EO (2017). Biodiversity research requires more boots on the ground. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1590 –1591

It’s all in the timing . . .

Last night, I tuned into BBC Radio 4 to listen to the news program at 10 pm expecting all the latest on the Brexit discussions from Brussels. Just before the news, I caught the tail-end of a discussion (in the program In Our Time, chaired by Melvyn Bragg) about the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).

Now, for whatever reason, a memory was pulled from the deepest recesses of my mind about someone else whose name was Gerard. Beyond that, I couldn’t recall much else. Except that, when I was a small boy, I’d heard ‘Gerard’ telling an amusing story about a man and a brick barrel. I fell asleep none the wiser.

Until this morning that is, when I called on the power of Google to provide me with answers.

I typed in ‘raconteur’ and ’empty brick barrel’, and pressed Enter. And immediately had the answer I was looking for.

Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959)

I had been thinking about Gerard Hoffnung, artist, musician, and raconteur known for his many humorous stories and recordings.

Hoffnung was born in Germany but grew up in London, having escaped the Nazis. He trained as an artist, became an accomplished musician (the tuba), and a regular contestant on panel games broadcast by the BBC. He is best remembered perhaps for his many humorous recordings, delivered (with an excellent sense of timing that has hardly been bettered) in his inimitable, and rather fruity, style.

Among his most celebrated recordings is his bricklayer’s tale. Thus my Google search for ‘brick barrel’.

And here it is. It must date from around 1958 (when he gave a famous speech to the Oxford Union). Sixty years on, it’s as fresh as then, and when I also first heard it. I sat at my computer this morning, chuckling away, almost tears in my eyes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Here is the full Oxford Union speech as well. The bricklayer’s tale clip is taken from this longer speech.

Sadly, Hoffnung was taken from us at an early age in 1959, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was a one-off.

Walking with my mobile: [1] Out and about on 20 March

Until I retired in April 2010 (aged 61) I had been quite active in the previous decade, playing badminton twice a week, and swimming at the weekends. As you can imagine playing badminton was quite strenuous in the heat and humidity (>30ºC/>80%RH) of Los Baños in the Philippines (where I worked for 19 years at the International Rice Research Institute). However, when Steph and returned to the UK, to our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (about 13 miles south of Birmingham city center), I needed to find some other form of exercise.

So, almost religiously since then, I have walked an average of 2 miles a day, around 45 minutes, at about 2.8 mph. Some days I don’t go out, especially if the weather is inclement, but other days, I may walk three to four miles or more. And I have taken these opportunities to explore my ‘home’ town, visiting areas I had never visited when we lived here in the 1980s.

To some extent, the same old walks have become somewhat stale, the same routes, so I always enjoy when we decide to go further afield (by car in the first instance) and then make a long walk. The parks at two national Trust properties, Hanbury Hall and Croome Park (7 and 20 miles from home, respectively) offer good long walks and beautiful landscapes.

Walks around Bromsgrove are mostly less photographically attractive, in the main, but there is a number of interesting landmarks that are worth documenting.

So, with this in mind, I’ve decided to begin a series of blogs, Walking with my mobile, in which I will illustrate the various walks that I make, with photos linked to the various via points added to a map for each.

Today’s walk, just over 2 miles and taking 44 minutes, was a test, as it were, of what I intend to do. I had thought of taking my Nikon D5000 DSLR camera (18-200mm) camera with me. But for a routine walk it’s rather heavy. So I decided to use my mobile phone camera.

In 2016 I acquired my first smartphone. It’s a Doogee X5pro, running Android 5.1, with 4.92MP camera, not the high resolution that is standard on much higher spec (and considerably more expensive) phones. But for the purposes of my walks, I reckon these images will be fine. See what you think.

Click on any of the via points to open an image or two. And this is what I’ll do in subsequent Walking with my mobile posts. Each red point has an image associated with it; the grey points just fill in some of the gaps in the route.

 

How we speak . . .

I’ve just finished reading the novel Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett, set during the late 19th century, in the Potteries of North Staffordshire. And now I have started his 1908 novel (considered his finest), The Old Wives’ Tale, that is set in the 1860s and beyond, also in the ‘five towns’.

Bennett used the local Potteries dialect sparingly throughout his novels. I came across a new dialect word while reading The Old Wives’ Tale this morning, which has perhaps taken on a new meaning nowadays: He admitted a certain feebleness (‘wankiness‘, he playfully called it, being proud of his skill in the dialect) . . . And this use of dialect came to my mind in light of something I read about recently (more of which at the end of this piece).

One author who did successfully write in Potteries dialect was William Bloor. His work has been archived at Keele University, and is available online where there’s this interesting comment: On the written page the dialect has the appearance of an arcane language, with mangled vowel sounds and harsh consonants rendering it incomprehensible to many.

You can find a list of Potteries dialect words here. Better still, listen to local Potteries author Alan Povey tell one of his Owd Grandad Piggott stories in dialect. Can you understand? I can (mostly).

Potteries dialect is much less known (and appreciated, perhaps) than Cockney (London), Brummie (Birmingham), Scouse (Liverpool), or Geordie (Newcastle upon Tyne). Today, there are probably few people in North Staffordshire who still fully speak in dialect as many did up to the 1950s. The influence of radio and television has surely brought about a standardization in the way we speak.

But what are the Potteries? They are the six (not five) towns, north to south, that comprise the City of Stoke-on-Trent: Tunstall [Turnhill], Burslem [Bursley], Hanley [Hanbridge], Stoke [Knype], Fenton, and Longton [Longshaw], and so named because they became a center of ceramic production in the early 17th century, due to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal.

I grew up in North Staffordshire, in the small market town of Leek (Axe in the Bennett novels), on the edge of the Staffordshire moorlands, just 10 miles to the northeast of the Potteries. Between September 1960 and June 1967 I traveled the fourteen miles every day from home to school in Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke. In Leek and the Potteries I did hear people talking in the local dialect, but rarely at school. Boys of my age had moved on linguistically, so to speak.

I don’t speak any dialect, but I clearly have an accent that, to many, sounds ‘northern’ because of the short vowel pronunciation characteristic of my speech. In this clip, I’m reading the first few paragraphs from Bennett’s The Old wives’ Tale:

But while I don’t speak dialect, I do use a few dialect words such as nesh (sensitive to the cold) or mithered (bothered). Growing up, I often heard the term of endearment, duck (used for men and women), but never used it myself.

I guess my accent and pronunciation (like anyone else) is a consequence of what I heard at home growing up. And has been modified by years of travel and living overseas. My mother was born in London’s East End, but grew up in Epsom, Surrey. She emigrated as a young woman to Canada and the USA in the 1920s. My father was a Staffordshire man, from Burton-on-Trent, but he moved away as a young man to the Cotswolds and then to sea, traveling the world as ship’s photographer. The way they spoke must have influenced me. For example, I pronounce schedule in the American way: skedule, not the soft shedule. That came from my mum, because that’s how I heard her pronounce it, something she probably picked up while in Canada and the USA.

A week ago or so, a rather interesting ‘quiz’ about British-Irish dialects appeared on Facebook (originally from The New York Times), and was widely shared. It wasn’t your run of the mill Facebook quiz. It seemed to have a purpose. Several people I know took the quiz, including my eldest brother and his wife. I took the quiz. We were all amazed at the accuracy of pinpointing where we came from,based on words we use in everyday speech. This is what my brother posted afterwards: Regarding myself – it says that I formed my language/speech style as being SW Derbyshire and SE Cheshire, which is ‘Spot-on’, Pauline’s was correct also being Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

I guess the algorithm behind the quiz used certain ‘signature’ words from different parts of the country (like nesh in my case) and gave them extra weight.

My result pointed towards Stoke-on-Trent northeastwards past Leek into southern Yorkshire, but with a greater probability in North Staffordshire. Also spot on! Just click on the link below and try for yourself.