Coping with Covid-19 . . .

Two weeks in lockdown . . . and counting!

One thing I’ve already discovered is that to keep me sane, I must limit my news intake. Why?

First, much of the news about this global pandemic is just too depressing, despite the tales of heroism about those on the frontline: the doctors and nurses, those keeping us supplied with food, or maintaining vital services when almost everything else is closed down.

Second, I just can’t listen to all the cant that spews from the mouths of politicians who I never trusted in the first place. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues spouting their fancy Brexit-like slogans that say nothing, making commitments they will probably be unable to meet, and the Prime Minister displaying his usual bluster and lack of command of detail (until he went down with the virus himself). He and his government appear to have no clear strategy to combat the epidemic in this country (well, England at least).

And when I look across the Atlantic to see what is going on in the USA under the leadership of Donald Trump, it’s appalling. I use the term ‘leadership’ very lightly indeed. It is disgraceful how he has behaved and continues to do so.

I think that when the crisis has passed, there will be a political reckoning, and I hope and expect these incompetent individuals will be consigned to the cesspit of history.


I’m sure for many families working from home, the lockdown is a real challenge, especially if there are children in the house, and young ones at that who often find it harder to keep themselves amused.

I guess, in one respect, Steph and I have an advantage. We’ve been retired now for a few weeks short of ten years. So we’ve already had to find things to keep us amused and occupied.

For Steph, it means spending time each day on her beading projects. She’s been doing this for a couple of decades, and first started when we lived in the Philippines. One of the downsides of the lockdown for her is being unable to make her bi-weekly trip to the shops. She has sourced many of her beads from charity shops, purchasing pieces of jewelry (bracelets, necklaces and the like) at knockdown prices, then deconstructing them into new pieces that she has designed.

She also has the garden to keep her busy. I only mow the lawns. We had started the year thinking we’d be moving to Newcastle upon Tyne by mid-summer or thereabouts, and hadn’t expected to spend too much time working in the garden (apart from the usual tidying up). It looks like the garden will need much more attention for many months to come. Our house move is on hold—almost indefinitely—until the housing market reopens and it’s safe to even contemplate reviving viewings and the like.

As for myself, I have this blog to keep me busy.

If you read my blog on a regular basis you will appreciate that it allows me to bring together two of my main hobbies: writing and photography. As well as the pleasure of designing each blog post, deciding what topics to focus on, what extra resources I might need (Wikipedia is a great source), and choosing the photos I want to include. And I have thousands of images to choose from.

So, with fewer opportunities to get out and about, I’m finding more time to work through stories that I had put to one side. Certainly it has been an opportunity to catch up on my posts about the many National Trust and English Heritage properties we have visited since 2011 (and some from even before then, when we joined both organizations).

I guess we are more fortunate than many countries. Provided we keep the recommended 2m physical/social distancing, we are permitted one period of exercise outside every day.

Since I retired in April 2010 I have tried to get out most days, in any case. I regularly walked three or four miles or more. But since I broke my leg in January 2016, I find that more than three miles is not very comfortable, and my leg swells up, aching for the rest of the day. So I limit myself to around two miles, about 45 minutes, and I have a regular set of routes that I follow. This has been useful since I’m able to navigate those that are reasonably quiet, as you can see from the images below. I mainly encounter folks walking their dogs. Steph has joined me on occasion.


However, shopping for food is quite the most stressful thing I have to do right now. Apart from the infection risk of having to mix with others (even though reasonably strict physical distancing is in place), but also because I’m a member of the over-70 ‘vulnerable’ demographic, we always wonder just what will be available on the shelves. At the start of the lockdown, many unreasonable (and irresponsible) people did panic buy, and stripped the shelves of many of the essentials.

The Morrisons supermarket we frequent is over a mile away, so we have to drive there. Since last week, the supermarket permits just one family member inside at a time (one per trolley), so the shopping trip has fallen to me alone, rather than together which has been the norm until now. I had to queue the first time to get inside; yesterday at 8:30 am there was no queue at all, and I was able to source almost everything that was on Steph’s list. Just a few minutes ago, our next door neighbor (who is a theater sister in the NHS, and who has special hours access to the supermarket) has just brought round the one item we needed but I couldn’t buy yesterday: plain flour! Simple pleasures.

So as far as food is concerned, we are managing fine for the time-being. I can feel my anxiety levels decreasing once I have left the supermarket with a full trolley. There really is no shortage of food – yet.


I also have music playing throughout the day. That’s a great comfort. It has to be Radio Paradise in the morning and early afternoon. Followed by Classic FM late afternoon and over dinner.

We’ve been catching up on the first four series of the excellent BBC crime drama Line of Duty (we hadn’t seen the first three series when they were first broadcast). Last night we watched the first episode of Series 5.

I find myself often going to bed earlier than normal, and enjoying an hour or so of Radio 4 before listening to the news headlines at 10 pm, and then settling to sleep.

Both Steph and I are avid readers. Her genre is crime fiction (I hope she doesn’t have anything planned). I read what takes my fancy, usually less fiction, even though I did read mostly fiction during 2018 and 2019.

My Kindle is great; I wouldn’t be without it. I’m currently well into Howard Goodall’s The Story of Music published in 2013. It’s an excellent read, but certainly technically difficult in places for someone like me with zero background in music theory or composition. Nevertheless it’s fascinating, and I look forward to viewing the BBC TV series of the same name that someone has kindly uploaded to YouTube. Here’s Episode 2.

We’ll manage . . . And life is still good.

 

It’s hard to be an optimist right now

I am an optimist by nature. But perhaps not to the same extent as these Monty Python characters from the 1979 film Life of Brian.

Mostly, my glass is half full. But, in recent months, and particularly over the past four weeks, my natural optimism has been severely challenged.

It has been a perfect storm, if you’ll excuse the pun, of bad news and events.

My faith in human nature took a serious dent on 12 December last year when Boris Johnson’s Conservatives (or Tories) won a thumping parliamentary majority, taking seats (mainly in the north of England) from Labour in constituencies that had either never voted Tory, or hadn’t for a generation or more. That was the signal for the Tory Brexiteers to push through the legislation on the EU Withdrawal Act and take us out of the EU on 31 January. Get Brexit Done! was the slogan. But we are just at the end of the beginning. And, it seems, Johnson has drawn so many hard red lines prior to new free trade negotiations that a No Deal Brexit at the end of this year seems evermore likely.

So what’s causing a drop in my spirits, apart from the obvious Brexit catastrophe?

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson

First of all, we now have a seemingly amoral Prime Minister in No 10 Downing Street in the shape of Boris Johnson—someone for whom I have utter contempt, as you will realise if you refer back to an earlier Brexit-related post I published in June last year.

But what tipped me over the edge from optimism to pessimism yesterday (1 March, the first day of meteorological Spring, when we should be thinking more positively) was the adulation in the Tory-supporting press over the news that Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds (presumably his former mistress since he is/was still married to his second wife of 27 years) were expecting a baby later this year. Can you imagine, The Mail on Sunday published an ‘exclusive’ six page special? Could this really be more important news than anything else that’s going on right now? [1]

For weeks now, since the General Election, Johnson has been our ‘invisible Prime Minister’. And that at a time when the world faces a serious public health challenge in the form of Covid-19, which marches on inexorably it seems. Indeed, I just read an item in today’s The Guardian online reporting that a senior health official here in the UK has now stated that we must expect widespread infection with the coronavirus fairly soon. And yet, Johnson decided only a few days ago to call a meeting—today—of the COBRA committee to coordinate the government’s response to this threat.

Already there has been a calamitous impact on the financial markets, which plunged worldwide last week by 10-13%, marking the end of a sustained bull market, and threatening all our pension prospects.

Then, in the UK, we’ve had four consecutive weekends of storms, three of them named: Ciara, Dennis, and Jorge (the last named by the Spanish meteorological service). These storms come after significant amounts of rain at the end of 2019. February was the wettest month on record. On record! And many parts of the country have suffered catastrophic flooding. Just a few miles to the south and west of where I live in Worcestershire, the River Severn rose to unprecedented levels.

Where was Boris Johnson? Nowhere to be seen or heard. Nor letting any of his ministers appear on one of the BBC’s flagship newscasts, Radio 4’s Today to answer any questions. Outrageous! It’s also been reported today that No. 10 has forbidden Department of Health officials from attending an EU-coordination meeting to address the potential Covid-19 pandemic. So much for taking back control. “We’re doomed, doomed I tell ye“, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would have commented.

He’s presiding over a dysfunctional government, even though it was elected under three months ago. Just a fortnight ago, the Chancellor the Exchequer and MP for my local Bromsgrove constituency, Sajid Javid, resigned after being presented with reappointment terms he could not accept. Over this past weekend, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (Interior ministry), Sir Philip Rutnam resigned after accusing the Secretary of State, Priti Patel (#PritiAwful, #PritiPathetic) of appalling behaviour.

At the heart of government is the unelected Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, the sinister Dominic Cummings (who made his name as an architect of the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum). Unelected and unaccountable it seems!

On top of all these things, we have the climate change deniers. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a case in point. Not to mention POTUS45, Donald Trump. I said not to mention him!

And what depresses me more about that moron, each and every day, are not just the lies that he spews and the inanities that issue forth from his mouth, and his politicization of the coronavirus crisis, but the fact that he may well be re-elected for a further four-year term come the election in November. What has the US electorate brought on itself, and the rest of us for that matter?

I haven’t even got round to commenting on the escalating humanitarian crisis on the Turkey-Syria border, the conflict in Idlib Province in Syria, or what is happening currently on the border between Turkey and Greece.

No wonder my optimism levels are low. Having got these concerns off my chest, do I feel better? Not really.

Better go wash my hands . . . and you too.


[1] This point of view appeared in The Guardian (online) today (3 March 2020) and is completely in line with what I wrote in this blog post a day earlier.

A new beginning for biodiversity . . .

Earlier this week, I enjoyed—on catch-up TV—the third episode (about South America) of David Attenborough’s latest series on the BBC, Seven Worlds, One Planet. Here’s a taster of this wonderful series.

Once again, Sir David has treated us to a feast of images from the natural world, accompanied by his typical understated but informative commentary. And, as I was saying to Steph afterwards, cinematic technology such as drones with HD cameras has added a new dimension to natural history storytelling.

Most natural history programs routinely highlight loss of biodiversity (and its causes such as climate change), and Seven Worlds, One Planet is no exception. We live on a species-rich planet. But with so many programs about the natural world appearing on our screens, do we take for granted the diversity of nature and its millions of animal, plant, fungal, and microbial species?

Apart from Seven Worlds, One Plant, a couple of other biodiversity-related items on the radio have caught my attention in recent weeks.

The first, at the beginning of November, was an item on the early morning Today news and current affairs program on BBC Radio 4 (that I listen to in bed as I enjoy my early morning cup of tea) about an initiative to unravel the genetic code of all known 60,000 species of eukaryotes [1] in the United Kingdom.

Known as the Darwin Tree of Life Project (a most appropriate name!) it’s the UK arm of a worldwide initiative, the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP) to sequence the genomes of all 1.5 million known species of animals, plants, protozoa and fungi on Earth. That’s some challenge!

Each day, Charles Darwin would take a stroll along the Sandwalk at the bottom of his garden, where ideas about species and evolution not doubt swirled around his mind.

Why is the Darwin Tree of Life Project only possible now?

As stated on the EBP website: Powerful advances in genome sequencing technology, informatics, automation, and artificial intelligence, have propelled humankind to the threshold of a new beginning in understanding, utilizing, and conserving biodiversity. For the first time in history, it is possible to efficiently sequence the genomes of all known species, and to use genomics to help discover the remaining 80 to 90 percent of species that are currently hidden from science.

But also cost. Since the very first genome was sequenced in 1995 (of a pathogenic Gram-negative bacterium) the costs of sequencing have plummeted making it now economically feasible to even contemplate a project on the scale of the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

The UK component (launched on 1 November) is led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge in collaboration with Natural History Museum in London, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Earlham Institute, Edinburgh Genomics, University of Edinburgh, EMBL-EBI (the European Bioinformatics Institute), and others. It is estimated that the project will take ten years to complete, costing £100 million over the first five years.

Dr Ken McNally

Molecular genetics and genomics have come a long, long way in just a few years. Just read the excellent 2014 analysis [2] by my former IRRI colleague, molecular geneticist Ken McNally how the latest developments in genomics (and related techniques) could contribute towards the conservation and use of biological diversity. And I’m sure things have progressed since Ken gazed into his ‘omics’ crystal ball just five years ago.

It’s remarkable how the science has accelerated in just a few decades. I completed my PhD under the supervision of Jack Hawkes, one of the world’s leading potato taxonomists and genetic resources conservation pioneer. In the 1960s (with colleagues from the immunology department at the University of Birmingham) he demonstrated that serology [3] could help clarify relationships between wild potato species (genus Solanum) [4].

As a graduate student at Birmingham in the early 1970s, I used a technique known as gel electrophoresis to separate potato tuber proteins, using the resultant patterns (position, and presence or absence) to better understand the relationships of different classes of cultivated potato.

Since the 1980s several different classes of molecular markers have been developed, and today—through whole genome sequencing—we can begin to decipher the complex relationship between genetic code and phenotypic and physiological diversity. We are beginning to explain better why species are different and how they are adapted to their environments.

My own research at IRRI and in collaboration with former colleagues Brian Ford-Lloyd, John Newbury, and Parminder Virk at the University of Birmingham in the mid-1990s, used molecular markers to analyse the diversity of rice varieties [5].

Another of the Birmingham-IRRI papers [6] was among the first (if not the first) to show a clear (and predictive) relationship between molecular markers (in this case RAPD markers) and appearance and performance of rice plants in the field.

Much of this rice research was aimed at understanding the diversity within a single species, Oryza sativa, which is grown over millions upon millions of hectares across the world. With hindsight, that research looks quite primitive, even though it was cutting edge at the time. Since the rice genome was first sequenced at the turn of the millennium, things have moved on apace, and more than 3000 genomes have been analysed to understand rice diversity.

But the Darwin Tree of Life Project will look across species, and hopefully keep a careful track of exactly which specimens/individuals are sequenced.

So, this brings me to the other radio broadcast I mentioned earlier. It was a discussion—about hybridisation between species—in the regular Thursday night In Our Time program, hosted by that doyen of broadcasting, Lord Melvyn Bragg with three biologists: Professor Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College London; Dr Sandra Knapp, from the Natural History Museum and a specialist in the taxonomy of the nightshade family, Solanaceae (that includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and many more); and zoologist Dr Nicola Nadeau of The University of Sheffield University. You can listen to that discussion here.

I found this discussion particularly interesting because in much of my research on potatoes, various legume species, and rice over many years I studied the relationships between species, and their ability to hybridise.

From the outset, Melvyn Bragg was working from the premise that species are distinct and rarely hybridise. That’s a reasonable point of view to take. After all, we can describe and identify millions of species based on the commonality of appearance (morphology) that individuals of one species share and make them different from other species. Like breeds with like.

Hybrids are less common between different animal species. Breeding behavior is a powerful isolating mechanism between species.

In plants, hybridisation is more common. However, there are many pre- and post-fertilization mechanisms that reduce the potential for hybridisation. It doesn’t matter if one can bring different species into cultivation alongside and successfully produce hybrids. In nature, many species never come into contact with each other because they grow in different habitats (in the same or different geographical regions). If they do grow in close (or relatively close) association, different species may not be reproductively compatible. Pollen from one species may fail to germinate on another or, if germinating, fail to achieve fertilization. Hybrid embryos may fail to develop, or even if hybrid seeds are formed, the plants are weak and fail to survive.

In the fluorescence images below (from pollinations between different tomato species that I used in class experiments with some of my students when I was teaching at Birmingham in the 1980s), a compatible pollination is shown in the images on the left and bottom. The other two images show poor pollen germination and growth in incompatible pollinations. Yet one or two pollen tubes have grown ‘normally’.

So, hybrids do occur, and are often successful in disturbed habitats that do not favor one parent or the other. There is a potential for species to expand their gene pools by exchange of some genetic material—or introgression, as it is called—that I described in one of my first blog posts in 2012.

Thank goodness plants can and do hybridise. As Steve Jones pointed out during the discussion, much of agriculture depends on ancient hybridisations and our ability to exploit cross compatibility between species. Wheat, one of the most important staple crops worldwide, is an ancient hybrid between three grass species. Potatoes evolved following crosses between different species (sometimes with different chromosome numbers) and hybrids were maintained by farmers since potatoes are grown vegetatively from tubers, not from seeds. Once a hybrid is formed then it can be maintained indefinitely through tubers.

Through hybridisation between cultivated varieties and wild species important characteristics or traits such as disease resistance can be added to the crops that farmers grow.

Just take this example from rice, showing the pedigree of the variety IR72 that was released in 1990. Many landrace varieties were crossed to produce this variety. But also very importantly, a wild rice, O. nivara (a close relative of O. sativa with which it crosses easily, and in the same genepool – see diagram below) was the source of resistance to grassy stunt virus, and it was this resistance that made IR72 such a successful variety.

One of the most important biodiversity initiatives in recent years has been the Crop Wild Relatives Project, started in 2011, managed by the Crop Trust with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and many partners around the world. It is funded by the Government of Norway.

The project has a number of priorities including collection of crop wild relatives and their conservation around the world. But also evaluation and pre-breeding, exactly the same type of approach I used in my own studies on species relationships. This research aims to determine the gene pools (GP on the diagram below) of crops and their wild relatives (a concept developed by Jack Harlan and JMJ de Wet in 1971 [7]), and provides plant breeders with useful and important information about the value of different wild species, and what traits can be exploited for greater adaptation.

These are exciting times for the collection, conservation, evaluation, and use of the many species of crop wild relatives. With regular access to this valuable germplasm in genebanks around the world, and data on how they can be hybridised, and with the additional information about plant genomes, then plant breeders can begin to use these species more strategically, even using GM approaches. However, the cultivation of GM crops is banned in many countries including the countries of the European Union (one of the biggest mistakes the European Union has collectively made), even though these GM technologies can significantly reduce the time and effort required to transfer useful traits from one species into another.

Scientists have many tools in the plant breeding toolbox. It all starts with a seed, collected from nature, studied in the laboratory, and conserved in genebanks. There’s hope yet.

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[1] Eukaryotic species are defined as organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within membranes, unlike prokaryotes, which are unicellular organisms that lack a membrane-bound nucleus, mitochondria or any other membrane-bound organelle (Bacteria and Archaea).

[2] McNally, KL. 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd and M Parry (eds.) Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI climate change series 4, CABI Wallingford.

[3] See Hawkes, JG (ed.) 1968. Chemotaxonomy and Serotaxonomy. Systematics Association and Academic Press, London. pp. 299.

[4] Hawkes published several immunological studies in the mid- to late 60s on North American and Mexican species of potato, with Richard Lester, one of his PhD students (and later Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham).

[5] Virk, P.S., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, M.T. Jackson & H.J. Newbury, 1995. Use of RAPD for the study of diversity within plant germplasm collections. Heredity 74, 170-179. PDF

[6] Virk, P.S., B.V. Ford-Lloyd, M.T. Jackson, H.S. Pooni, T.P. Clemeno & H.J. Newbury, 1996. Predicting quantitative variation within rice using molecular markers. Heredity 76, 296-304. PDF

[7] Harlan, JR and JMJ de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20, 509-517.

Exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds and Cambridgeshire Fens*

Last week, Steph and I spent three days exploring five National Trust and English Heritage properties in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. This is not an area with which we are familiar at all. We spent the first night on the coast at Skegness, and the second in the Georgian town of Wisbech.

It was a round trip of just under 360 miles from our home in Bromsgrove, taking in nine counties: Worcestershire, West Midlands, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk (for about three minutes), and Rutland.

Our first stop was Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire. There has been a fortified residence on this site since the mid thirteenth century, but it wasn’t until two centuries later that the remarkable brick tower was built. This is quite unusual for any castle, and Lord Cromwell is believed to have seen such buildings during his sojourns in France.

The tower and part of a stable block are all that remain today, although the position of other towers and a curtain wall can be seen. The whole is surrounded by a double moat.

Like so many other castles (see my blogs about Goodrich Castle in Gloucestershire, Corfe Castle in Dorset, and Kenilworth in Warwickshire) Tattershall was partially demolished (or slighted) during the Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651.

And over the subsequent centuries it slipped into decay. Until the 1920s when a remarkable man, Viscount Curzon of Kedleston (near Derby) bought Tattershall Castle with the aim of restoring it to some of its former glory, the magnificent tower that we see today.

The castle was then gifted to the National Trust in whose capable hands it has since been managed.

There is access to the roof (and the various chambers on the second and third floors) via a beautiful spiral stone staircase, quite wide by the normal standard of such staircases. But what makes this one so special is the carved handrail from single blocks of stone. And on some, among all the other centuries-old graffitti, are the signatures of some of the stonemasons.

Do take a look at this album of photos of Tattershall Castle.

Just a mile or so southeast of the castle is RAF Coningsby, very much in evidence because it’s a base for the RAF’s Typhoon aircraft, and a training station for Typhoon pilots. So the noise from these aircraft is more or less constant. However, RAF Coningsby is also the base for the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and just as we reached the car park on leaving Tattershall, we were treated to the sight of a Lancaster bomber (the iconic stalwart of the Second World War Bomber Command) passing overhead, having just taken off from the airfield, just like in the video below. At first, it was hidden behind some trees, but from the roar of its engines I knew it was something special. Then it came into view while banking away to the east.

Just 20 miles further east lies Gunby Hall, a William and Mary townhouse masquerading as a country house, and built in 1700. The architect is not known.

It was built by Sir William Massingberd (the Massingberds were an old Lincolnshire family) and was home to generations of Massingberds until the 1960s. You can read an interesting potted history of the family here.

Gunby Hall, and almost all its contents accumulated by the Massingberds over 250 years were gifted to the National Trust in 1944. Lady Diana Montgomery-Massingberd (daughter of campaigner Emily Langton Massingberd) was the last family member to reside at Gunby, and after her death in 1963, tenants moved in until 2012 when the National Trust took over full management of the house, gardens and estate.

Gunby is remarkable for two things. During the Second World War, the house was in great danger of being demolished by the Air Ministry because the runway at nearby (but now closed) RAF Spilsby had to be extended to accommodate the heavy bombers that would operate from there. But Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd (husband of Lady Diana) was not a man without influence. He had risen to the rank of Field Marshal, and had served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff between 1933 and 1936. After he wrote to the king, George V, the location of the runway was changed, and Gunby saved.

It was then decided to gift the property and contents to the National Trust. So what we see in the house today is all original (nothing has been brought in from other properties or museums).

Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd started life a simply Archibald Montgomery, but changed his name by deed poll to Montgomery-Massingberd on his marriage to Diana. It was a condition of the inheritance of the estate that the name Massingberd was perpetuated. Both he and Diana are buried in the nearby St Peter’s Church on the edge of the gardens.

Although not extensive, Steph and I thought that the gardens at Gunby were among the finest we have seen at any National Trust property. Yes, we visited in mid-summer when the gardens were at their finest perhaps, but the layout and attention to detail from the gardeners was outstanding. Overall the National Trust volunteers were knowledgeable and very friendly. All in all, it was a delightful visit.

You can see more photos here.

On the second day, we headed west from our overnight stay in Skegness on the coast (not somewhere I really want to visit again), passing by the entrance to Gunby Hall, en route to Bolingbroke Castle, a ruined castle owned by English Heritage, and birthplace of King Henry IV in 1367, founder of the Lancaster Plantagenets.

There’s not really too much to see of the castle except the foundations of the various towers and curtain wall. Nevertheless, a visit to Bolingbroke Castle is fascinating because English Heritage has placed so many interesting information boards around the site explaining the various constructions, and providing artist impressions of what the castle must have looked like.

So the castle footprint is really quite extensive, surrounded by a moat (now just a swampy ditch) that you can walk around, inside and out, taking in just how the castle was built.

A local sandstone, rather soft and crumbly, was used and couldn’t have withstood a prolonged siege. Interspersed in the walls, now revealed by deep holes but still in situ elsewhere, are blocks of hard limestone that were perhaps used for ornamentation as well as giving the walls additional strength. The castle was slighted in the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

The complete set of Bolingbroke photos can be viewed here.

Heading south to Wisbech, our aim was Peckover House and Garden, occupied from the 1770s until the late 1940s by the Peckover family of Quakers and bankers.

Peckover House is a detached Georgian mansion, among a terrace of elegant houses on North Brink, the north bank of the tidal River Nene, and facing a counterpart terrace on South Brink, where social reformer Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, was born in 1838.

Standing in front of Peckover House, it’s hard to believe that there is a two acre garden behind. Among the features there is a cats’ graveyard of many of the feline friends that have called Peckover home.

Inside the house, I was reminded (though on a much smaller scale) of Florence Court in Northern Ireland that we visited in 2017. The hall and stairs are a delicate duck-egg blue, and there and in many of the rooms there is exquisite plasterwork. Above the doorways downstairs are fine broken pediments.

The most celebrated of the family was Alexander (born in 1830) who traveled extensively and built an impressive collection of books and paintings. He was Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, and was elevated to a peerage in 1907.

He bought one of his books, a 12th century psalter, in about 1920 for £200 or so. Now on loan from Burnley library and displayed in Alexander’s library, the book has been insured for £1,200,000!

Check out more photos of Peckover House and garden.

Our final stop, on the way home on the third day, was Woolsthorpe Manor, birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, President of the Royal Society, who was born on Christmas Day in 1642 three months after his father, also named Isaac, had passed away.

This is the second home of a famous scientist we have visited in the past couple of months, the first being Down House in Kent, home of Charles Darwin. Woolsthorpe has become a pilgrimage destination for many renowned scientists, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking who are shown in some of the exhibits.

Woolsthorpe is not a large property, comprising a limestone house and outbuildings. It has the most wonderful tiled roof.

It came into the Newton family as part of the dowry of Isaac Sr.’s marriage to Hannah Ayscough. Keeping sheep for wool production was the principal occupation of the family.

Isaac Newton won a place at Trinity College, Cambridge but had to escape back to Woolsthorpe during an outbreak of the plague in 1665 and 1666. He thrived and the 18 months he spent at Woolsthorpe were among his most productive.

Open to the public on the upper floor, Newton’s study-bedroom displays his work on light that he conducted there.


And from the window is a view over the orchard and the famous Flower of Kent apple tree that inspired his views on gravitation.

On the ground floor, in the parlour are two portraits of Newton, one of him in later life without his characteristic wig, and, high above the fireplace, his death mask.

Also there are early copies (in Latin and English) of his principal scientific work, the Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687.

There’s a full album of photos here.

And, with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first landing on the Moon on 20 July 1969, there was a display of NASA exhibits and how Newton’s work all those centuries ago provided the mathematical basis for planning a journey into space. The National Trust has also opened an excellent interactive science display based on Newton’s work that would keep any child occupied for hours. I’m publishing this post on the anniversary of Apollo 11’s blast off from Cape Kennedy, now Cape Canaveral once again.

All in all, we enjoyed three excellent days visiting five properties. Despite the weather forecast before we set out, we only had a few minutes rain (when we arrived at Bolingbroke Castle). At each of the four National Trust properties the volunteer staff were so friendly and helpful, full of details that they were so willing to share. If you ever get a chance, do take a couple of days to visit these eastern England jewels.

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* The Lincolnshire Wolds are a range of hills, comprised of chalk, limestone, and sandstone. The Fens are drained marshlands and a very important agricultural region.

Boris Johnson is a mendacious ****!

****? Maybe *****, even ******.

I leave it to you, my readers, to substitute an appropriate epithet. A few come to mind, but I prefer not to say in print.

This coming Sunday it will be three years since the referendum was held to determine our future inside or outside the European Union. Three years! I wholeheartedly voted Remain, and still have [fading] hopes the decision to Leave can be reversed. Based on what I heard in the ‘debate’ on BBC1 a couple of nights ago among five contenders who made it to the fourth ballot among MPs, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, and Rory Stewart, for leadership of the Conservative Party (and de facto Prime Minister), we don’t appear to have made much progress. 

L-R: BoJo, JeHu, MiGo, SaJa, and RoSt.

None of the contenders had a viable plan, no clear idea of how they would deliver Brexit.

While Boris Johnson has been egregiously mendacious throughout his career, three of the other candidates were also living in cloud-cuckoo-land. And, in hopes of winning the Tory Party election, were trying to ‘out-Brexit’ each other.

Listening to Sajid Javid (my local constituency MP) I did wonder whether Dominic Raab (who was eliminated from the contest in a ballot earlier in the day) had reappeared on stage. Only one of the candidates, Rory Stewart, has adopted the reality of the situation that the nation is facing. But even he was floating around in cloud-cuckoo-land in proposing some measures to unblock the parliamentary impasse. Must be the residual effects of the opium he is reported to have smoked in Iraq.

And the same goes for three of the other candidates: Boris Johnson (“I was once at university offered a white substance, none of which went up my nose, and I have no idea whether it was cocaine or not”), Michael Gove (who has admitted taking cocaine on several occasions 20 years ago), and Jeremy Hunt (who admitted drinking a cannabis-infused drink while backpacking in India years ago). What next? Javid admitting he has a drink problem?

Anyway, two days on, and we’re down to the final two candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy HUnt, who will now go forward to hustings around the country and a vote by 160,000 or so members of the Conservative Party only.

But the clear favourite (so we are led to believe), and winner of the ballot among MPs, is BoJo. A man who has openly spoken or written racist comments, who has lied through his teeth (and denied he ever said such things), and who was, as far as commentaries from insiders go, a disaster as Foreign Secretary.

This is the man who even his former employer Max Hastings¹ (former editor of The Telegraph) says can’t be trusted and is unfit to be Prime Minister, in comments widely circulated on social media:

Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet. His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is indeed manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless and frankly, nastier, figure than the public appreciates. I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect, save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgement, loyalty or discretion. Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st Century, could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still. 

So, there we have it. The MP ballots have been cast. From the original ten candidates, there are now just two: a mendacious **** up against a disastrous and incompetent former Health Secretary (not something I’d want on my CV) and current Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. And both believing that a new deal can be negotiated with the EU to deliver the Brexit 17.4 million citizens of this benighted nation of ours supposedly voted for. Except nobody (on the UK side at least) seems to agree on what the endgame really was. And none of the candidates for Conservative Party leader and PM had a clear vision for the future. Except that the Promised Land is over the horizon, and the unicorn breeding program is doing just fine.

Boris Johnson soon to reside in No 10 Downing Street? Already there are predictions that his premiership will last no longer than a few months. The parliamentary arithmetic has not changed.

However, another thing that concerns me equally is the thought of a General Election, and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn winning the keys to No 10.  Either Johnson or Corbyn in No 10? It’s the stuff of nightmares. I think I prefer the incumbent — Larry!

Update: 23 June After I’d posted this story, David Thompson left the comment below, to which I have just replied. And he rightly raises the spectre of The Brexit Party winning a General Election, and Nigel Farage becoming Prime Minister. He’s an even bigger buffoon than BoJo. Nevertheless, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this could come to pass. What has politics come to in the UK?

As Private Frazer from the BBC’s series about the Home Guard during the Second World War, Dad’s Army, would probably have said: We’re doomed, doomed!


¹ This article, by Max Hastings, was published in The Guardian on 24 June 2019. It totally destroys Boris Johnson.

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.

I had a dream . . .

Well, more of a nightmare, actually.

I dreamt that I’d been elected a Member of Parliament. For the Labour Party even. Me, an MP sitting in the House of Commons! Nothing could be further from any aspirations I ever had nor, at my age, could I now want to explore.

I can’t imagine why I would have such a dream, except that my mind must be sensitized to politics given that Brexit is rarely out of the news for five minutes these days.

However, given the parlous state of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (increasingly anti-Semitic in some quarters of the Party), that would not be my natural home. As I mentioned in a recent post, I once voted (in the General Election of June 1970) for the Conservative Party candidate. Never again. My seat in the House of Commons could never be on the Conservative benches, a party standing accused of entrenched Islamophobia.

I also wrote recently that politics in the UK is broken. Broken by Brexit. The fissures were already there perhaps, underneath the surface. They have been blown wide open by Brexit, an issue that has split the two major parties, Conservative and Labour. It’s not an issue that lends itself to tribal loyalties, For or Against, that dominate so many of the issues that Parliament is tasked to resolve.

So the idea that I should go into politics is ludicrous, to say the least. But then again? Political gravity pulls me to the center-center left, towards the Liberal Democrats, but since the 2017 General Election the Lib Dems are no longer a force to be reckoned with. They had already been punished in the 2015 election for having gone into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 (although I personally believe they didn’t really have much choice, and did help moderate some [many?] of the more extreme Conservative aims in government). They have not shone in recent months although always supporting Remain and a People’s Vote.

But what has become clear to me during the whole Brexit debacle is that politics in the UK needs a root and branch reform. I’ve come to this conclusion because I have probably watched more than my fair share of broadcasts from Parliament.

Our way of doing politics is anachronistic. Just watch the goings-on in the House of Commons during PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions, which are questions to the PM). I doubt many would argue that change isn’t needed. Debates and member behavior in the House of Lords are much more restrained, probably because half of the members are asleep.

The whole Westminster set up is adversarial, opposing benches of tribal MPs baying at each other. Such a set-up is not conducive to compromise – precisely what is needed at this time of national crisis brought on by Brexit. Party before country! Whatever must anyone from outside the UK think?

It’s interesting to note that the devolved legislatures in Scotland (the Scottish Parliament or Parlàmaid na h-Alba in Gaelic) and Wales (the National Assembly for Wales or Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru in Welsh) are not configured in this way, nor the Northern Ireland Assembly (if it ever meets again). Each member has an individual desk. In the House of Commons there is not enough room for all 650 MPs. Many are forced to stand during certain sessions like PMQs attended by all MPs. At other times it must be quite disheartening to be an MP. Here is Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is introducing a debate (video) last week on an issue as important as climate change to an almost empty chamber.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, introduces a debate on climate change to an almost empty House of Commons on 28 February 2019.

And then there is the antiquated voting system, where the Speaker asks MPs to signify their support, Aye of No, before deciding whether an actual ‘hard’ vote is needed. Then MPs file through the Lobby to cast their votes. You can imagine how long this can take if there are multiple votes, one by one. Parliamentary procedures and rituals seem locked in the Medieval Period.

The Palace of Westminster (where both the House of Commons and House of Lords meet in separate chambers) is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed it is falling down around Parliamentarians’ heads and is need of an urgent (and very costly) refurbishment. Yet MPs are reluctant to abandon the ‘Westminster ship’ to decamp to temporary premises while the buildings are brought up to standard one might expect in the 21st century for ‘the Mother of Parliaments‘.

But how about moving, permanently, to a bespoke parliament building, preferably in one of the regions outside London? The Palace of Westminster could then be converted to the museum it has (increasingly) become.

And while we’re considering reforms, how about introducing proportional representation in our voting system? Yes, that would probably lead to more frequent coalitions, but unless we break the stranglehold of the main parties I fear increased lurches to the right and left of politics.

MPs’ pay is a contentious issue. Currently MPs receive a basic salary of £77,379 (plus allowances and expenses). Personally, I think that £77,000 is rather low for such an important and responsible position. Not that many MPs are currently worthy perhaps of what they actually receive or might expect in the future. However, one proviso I would insist upon, that no MP may increase his/her income through external emoluments (directorships and the like, or as newspaper columnists, for example). Politics might then attract another (and better) generation of aspiring politicians.

You may accuse me of naïvety, and I would accept the criticism. But unless and until we are willing to openly confront the issues that challenge politics today in the UK, nothing will change. We will continue to be mired in a pit of our own delusions that Westminster really is the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, the epitome of democracy.