We’ve waited four decades . . .

It’s hard to believe that 40 years have flown by since ABBA released their last studio album, The Visitors, at the end of November 1981.

And here we are, in late 2021, eagerly waiting for the release (on 5 November) of a new—and 10th—album, Voyage. It sounds as though they never went away. Actually, to my ears, it sounds as though they just got better, matured, as of course they have done, being slightly older and younger than me (I’m coming up to 73 in mid-November).

How can I say this? Well, in a smart marketing move, ABBA released a double A-side single with accompanying videos on YouTube. I Still Have Faith In You and Don’t Shut Me Down (Tracks 1 and 4 on Voyage) may not have climbed as high in the charts worldwide as might have been expected (although they did rather well in some countries), fans have been quite emotional about the release. From comments I’ve read on Facebook and Twitter, and left on YouTube, the reception by ABBA fans has been ecstatic.

So, how do I (as a dedicated ABBA fan – I wrote about them in January this year) feel about these two tracks? Equally ecstatic I have to admit. Indeed, I reckon that if these are but a sample of the new album overall, then we really are in for an ABBA feast.

But don’t take my word for it. Have a look and listen to these new tracks.

Fronted by Anni-Frid, I Still Have Faith In You commences as a quiet ballad, but builds in a crescendo to a wonderful chorus, filled with ABBA pizzazz. Her voice has become a little deeper, and perhaps warmer. But it still reaches the heights when joined by Agnetha in the lovely harmonies typical of ABBA. Changes of pace, of key and beautiful musical arrangement throughout, I Still Have Faith In You is a fitting composition with which to launch ABBA’s return, albeit for this once-in-a-lifetime album only.

With this track, and the next, Don’t Shut Me Down, Benny and Björn clearly demonstrate what a formidable song-writing duo they are. These two songs, as with all their compositions, are written for the voices of Anni-Frid and Agnetha, not adapted to their voices. And this is what makes them so powerful.

Don’t Shut Me Down begins with Agnetha setting the scene, in ballad format, before the pace explodes in a riot of funky bass. I could find myself easily dancing to this one. The musical arrangement is breathtaking, layers of music, composition at its finest. Just have a close listen to the track, and the other, to see the musical magic that Benny has woven among the lyrics.

And talking of the lyrics, both these tracks have a story to tell. It never ceases to amaze me how clever their lyric composition is and has always been, especially given that Benny and Björn are composing in their second language. It’s sophisticated stuff.

Critical reception of these tracks has been good, and I think everyone is waiting for the 5th when we can get to enjoy the other eight tracks on Voyage.

ABBA have already indicated there won’t be another album. After 40 years, ABBA has brought some joy into the lives of countless fans around the world, especially at a time when everything was looking rather grey.

I now have two ear worms, one for each ear, and I find myself singing along in my head, familiar with the lyrics already AND the fancy musical arrangements. I couldn’t hum them aloud if I tried, but within the recesses of my mind they are perfect replicas. And they make me happy.


 

One year already in the northeast . . .

There were days, a little over a year ago, when I thought that the sale of our house in Worcestershire would never be completed. It was a really stressful time, not made any easier by the solicitors ‘managing’ the house sale chain.

Even today I find it slightly surreal that we finally managed to sell our house and move 226 miles to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England (map), in the middle of a pandemic. But, at just after 12:30 on 30 September last year, that’s what we did, closing the front door of our home of 39 years for the final time.

Since we hadn’t found anywhere to buy in the Newcastle area—the pandemic restricting any travel plans we initially had to view properties for sale—we took a six month rental on a three bedroom house in the West Allotment-Shiremoor area of the city, about six miles northeast of the city center towards the North Sea coast, moving in on 1 October.

After taking a little over a week to settle in and familiarize ourselves with the local area and shopping, we began the search for a new home to buy, armed with a list of properties that I’d already lined up through online searches of estate agent (realtor) websites.

The search didn’t take long at all. On 14 October our offer on a two-year old house in the Backworth area (just under a mile from where we were renting) was accepted. However, the actual sale didn’t complete until the first week of February this year, and we finally moved in on 6 March.

Moving out of Cloverfield on 6 March

Moving into our new home


Having spent so little time searching for somewhere to live, we could then sit back and relax, so to speak, and explore the local North Tyneside area and Northumberland more widely.

We already knew something about the county. In 1998 during one of our home leaves, Steph and I spent a week traveling around Northumberland. Then, our younger daughter Philippa commenced her degree course at Durham University in October 2000, and afterwards she moved permanently to Newcastle. So for 20 years or more we’ve had good reason to come back to this neck of the woods.

Northumberland is one of the most beautiful counties in the country, located just south of the border with Scotland, with Cumbria (and the Lake District) to the west, and North Yorkshire (and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or AONB) to the south. There are so many interesting and beautiful locations to visit, and keep up our interest in properties owned and managed by the National Trust and English Heritage. And it’s a county with a long and illustrious history.

The Backworth area was, until 40 years ago, home to several collieries. After they were closed, the buildings demolished, rail tracks lifted, and spoil heaps leveled, the whole area has re-wilded, and the routes of the former rail links (the waggonways) to the coal depots or staithes on the River Tyne to the south have opened as footpaths and bridleways. There are miles and miles of waggonways. The plant and animal and bird life is incredible. I try to get out most days for a 2-3 mile walk along the waggonways.

Along the Cramlington Waggonway, West Allotment

Just a few miles to the east of Backworth is the North Sea coast. Northumberland boasts of some of the finest beaches in the country. Our closest is at Seaton Sluice, and many times since we moved north we have headed there for a bracing walk along the beach, weather permitting.

This interactive map (with links to other blog posts or photo albums) shows all the places we have visited over the past 12 months. And although it looks as though we have been quite busy, there’s just so much more to explore for the first time or renew our acquaintance from previous visits to Northumberland.


Being a new build house, there were only a few things that needed my attention inside and they were quickly dealt with over a few weeks. Outside was a different prospect, and a project that has kept us busy—well, kept Steph busy— ever since: the creation of a new garden. Both the front and rear of the house only had lawns. So Steph came up with a design and we called in a small company at the end of April to remove the surplus turf. Then we set about planting all the materials we’d brought from Bromsgrove and carefully nurtured over the winter.

Quite a difference for just five months. But Steph has lots more plans.

As we have for exploring Northumberland and the wider region in the coming months and years.


 

Life in a northern town . . .

Septimius Severus

There is only circumstantial evidence that the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 145-211, ruling from AD 193) ever visited Coria (that we know today as Corbridge Roman town) in Northumberland. However he arrived in Britannia in AD 208 to suppress uprisings in Caledonia (Scotland).

The route to the north lay along the Roman road Dere Street. And Dere Street passed through Coria. After campaigning for three years he took ill, withdrew to Eboracum (York), and died there in 211.

Coria claims to be the most northerly town in the Roman Empire, founded almost 2000 years ago. I can’t vouch for that, but it was certainly the most northerly Roman town in Britannia, just a few miles south of Chesters Roman Fort and Hadrian’s Wall, the northern boundary between Roman civilization and barbarism to the north.

The remains of Corbridge Roman town lie just under 20 miles due west from Newcastle upon Tyne city center. Steph and I took our two grandsons, Elvis and Felix, there a few weeks past.

Any visitor to Corbridge can’t help but be impressed when entering the ruins, especially taking into account what is actually on display, and what is not. English Heritage has domain over only a small section of the entire Corbridge site. It stretches much further out in all directions. Just south of the site is the River Tyne where there was once a crossing. Much of the site has been excavated, but large areas were covered over once the excavations were complete, over a century ago.


Entrance to the site passes through a fine museum chronicling the history and timeline of the town, with many impressive artefacts on display from the mighty to the mundane. Among the most notable of these is the Corbridge Lion that was discovered more than a century ago inside a water tank.

Just outside the museum are the remains of two large granaries with their vaulted floors that allowed heated air to flow and keep grains dry.

These granaries stand next to the impressively wide high street that bisected the town.

Around the site are the remains of walls that have become bowed through subsidence yet impressively retained their integrity.

Another feature of the site which interested me were the sophisticated drainage channels, some covered, along the streets and connecting different buildings, presumably some carrying clean water into dwellings.

In the southwest corner of the site is a deep, wall-lined pit that apparently was the strongroom.

There’s so much to explore at Corbridge Roman town that I don’t think I did the site justice during this first visit. Another visit is surely on the cards come the Spring.


 


 

The beguiling girl from Malaga . . .

Steph and I enjoy a pot of freshly-brewed coffee (two parts No. 3 Lazy Sunday and one part No. 5 After Dark, from Taylors of Harrogate) just a couple of times a week, when we have a more leisurely—and usually cooked—breakfast. And yesterday, Sunday, was one of those days.

Normally I make the coffee while Steph practices her yoga, and take a cup upstairs to my ‘office’ (a spare bedroom), check my email and social media accounts, and browse the news websites.

Not yesterday, however. I got behind myself, and only started to boil the water once Steph had finished her yoga. But there was still time to pour myself a first cup, and spend a few minutes in an armchair waiting for the sun to break through the ever-present bank of cloud that had dogged this part of the country for the past week, putting temperatures well below what they should be for this time of year.

As usual I tuned into my favorite Internet station, Radio Paradise, and sat there thinking about nothing in particular. Until . . .

A track by the TexMex group Chingon was the second song played. It was so familiar, yet unfamiliar at the same time. It was a song that I’d come across for the first time only a few months back, and yet Chingon‘s interpretation was so different.

And the song? Malagueña Salerosa.

I’d come across it in a YouTube video, from an October 2016 broadcast of Live from Here with Chris Thile (now cancelled), an early Saturday evening show broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio but available nationwide, and successor to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Performed by Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno I was immediately captivated by the song and the singer. What a voice! What a vocal range! What emotion!

It seems that Malagueña Salerosa has almost become her signature song. Her performances are essentially the same, but as with all talented artists, her interpretation varies just slightly from one to another.

So, how different is the version by Chingon? Well, here’s a link to the recorded version that I heard on Radio Paradise, as well as a live performance. See for yourself. It’s a combination of rock, mariachi and the like. Very upbeat compared to the Gaby Moreno interpretation.

Chingon contributed a performance of Malagueña Salerosa to Quentin Tarantino’s 2004 film Kill Bill Volume 2.

In the song, the vocalist must hold a high note, as long as possible. That’s one of the differences between the versions by Gaby Moreno and Chingon: they perform that vocal feat on different lyrics. Impressive.

Anyhow, having now heard two versions of this particular song, I was intrigued to know a little more about it, who wrote it and when.

Malagueña Salerosa was apparently written by Elpidio Ramírez and Pedro Galindo, although this has been disputed. What we do know is that it was published in 1947, and perhaps the first well-known recording was by Mexican singer and film star Miguel Aceves Mejía, ‘King of the Falsetto’, who died in 2006 aged 90. Malagueña Salerosa was one of his greatest hits.

Another version I’ve come across features former Spanish child singer Joselito and Mexican star Antonio Aguilar in the 1952 film El Caballo Blanco (The White Horse).

There is one more recording that I’ve encountered, by operatic tenor Placido Domingo, released in 1999, but not one that I warmed to. He does, however, hold the high notes pretty well.

So, there you have it. One later-than-usual cup of coffee has led to all these background searches on the Interweb. It’s been an interesting endeavor.


Incidentally, writing about cover versions, I also heard recently on Radio Paradise a cover version of Sting’s 1993 Fields of Gold, by American singer and guitarist Eva Cassidy. She passed away in 1996 from cancer at the early age of 33 less than a year after this recording was released. I’d never heard of her before this lovely version of Fields of Gold was broadcast on Radio Paradise.

Better than the original? I think so.


 

“Where did you get that hat?”

That’s the title and first line of a comic song, composed and first performed by New York vaudeville comedian Joseph J Sullivan in 1888.

It came to mind yesterday when I opened an article in The Guardian online newspaper that asked readers to answer this simple question: When and why did men stop wearing hats?

Cary Grant, taken by my father on board a trans-Atlantic liner in the 1930s

There were some interesting answers: changing fashion (more leisure styles); availability of  warmer clothing so no need to wear a hat; the influence of President Kennedy (who’d been interviewed not wearing a hat) and celebrities; and cars, among the many responses.

Just take a look at the image below, tweeted by San Francisco resident @edannunziatta in July 2018, commenting that “Everybody used to wear hats. Then suddenly everybody stopped wearing hats! Weird, right?

This image was probably taken in the 1930s or 40s

Check out photos of mill or shipyard workers for example from a century ago or earlier, and all the men are wearing flat caps (and the majority are also sporting impressive moustaches). Fashions change.

Did you ever see an outdoors photo of Winston Churchill without a hat? Hats were almost as much a signature as his ubiquitous cigar.

But it did get me wondering, and when I searched online for more information, there was a wealth of articles and videos explaining why there had been this change of fashion over the decades. Here’s one video (about 20 minutes long) that provides a lot of explanations, and four main reasons why hats are, in general, no longer en vogue.

I don’t remember my father ever wearing a hat, except for an exceptionally cold winter’s day when he would dig out an old fur hat that he kept squirreled away somewhere.

I never really knew my mother’s parents, and I never saw my paternal grandfather ever wear a hat (he was almost 76 when I was born in 1948). However, in these photos of my mother, in 1936, after she returned to the UK from the USA, and met with her parents (Martin and Ellen Healy, on the left) and her future in-laws (Tom and Alice Jackson, on the right), both my grandfathers wore hats, my Healy grandfather sporting perhaps a more upmarket bowler or similar.

As for me, I love hats, and I rarely take my daily walk without some sort of titfer on my head. That wasn’t always the case, however. From the ages of five to sixteen I was obliged wear a cap to school, but always removed it at the earliest opportunity. Indeed it was a punishable ‘offence’ at my high school to be caught without a cap, not something that would be widely countenanced today (unless you attend the likes of Eton or Harrow, perhaps).

I have a photo of me (aged seven or eight) somewhere—although I can’t lay my hands on it right now—wearing this huge sombrero that was part of the costume of a large doll (Matilda was her name, if my memory serves me well¹) owned by my sister Margaret.

And talking of sombreros . . .

Just after I arrived in Peru in January 1973, and having spent several hours for the first time under the tropical sun at the beach I realized that I did need some sort of hat for protection. On my first trip into the Andes east of Lima, we stopped by a hat stand selling straw hats. I wore it on all my germplasm excursions across the Andes, and even after we moved to Costa Rica three years later.

Near Cuzco in southern Peru, 1974

I took it back to the UK in 1981, and then it accompanied me to the Philippines in 1991 when we moved there.

In the field at IRRI in the Philippines around 2008

And, on occasion, I still wear it from time to time today. And this is why it has survived all these years. First, it is has a fine weave. Second, it can be rolled up, then ‘revived’ within seconds by holding under warm water.

But today, I generally wear a more fashionable straw hat (courtesy of the National Trust) in the summer months because my optician advised me to protect my eyes (incipient cataracts). It’s not a Panama, and I now regret not picking one up in either Cali airport in Colombia or Panama later the same day when traveling there in July 2016.

On other work trips I’ve often used a floppy cotton hat from IRRI, or one given to me by good friend Dyno Keatinge when he was Director General of the World vegetable Center (AVRDC) in Taiwan. I sometimes wore a baseball-style hat although those are by no means my favorite.

Come winter, then other measures are called for. When Steph and I lived in the Philippines we spent Christmas 2007 in Minnesota. As you can imagine the difference in temperature was extreme, from around 30°C on departure to -20°C on arrival in the USA. Severe measures were called for, and I quickly acquired a woolly hat that I still use today.

2007 on the left, 2020 on the right

And to keep the rain off, and because I like the look and feel of both, I have a tweed flat cap (that I bought in Minnesota on one of my work trips) and a dark blue felt fedora that has been my pride and joy for about five years.

One thing is certain, when I’m out and about au chapeau, I see very few other men similarly attired, apart from the odd baseball cap or woolly hat.

Despite the general lack of hat popularity these days, I fortunately don’t attract comments like “Where did you get that hat?” Thank goodness!


¹ My eldest brother Martin has confirmed that the doll was actually named Lola!

Looking back . . . and looking forward

As I approach my 73rd birthday, I find myself inevitably reminiscing about the places I’ve been, the wonders (both natural and man-made) I’ve seen, and the people I’ve met in the more than 60 countries (map) I visited throughout my career in international agricultural research for development.

I guess I inherited a ‘travel gene’ from my parents, Fred and Lilian Jackson, who both traveled at an early age. My mother first went to Canada when she was 17, as a children’s nanny, then moved to the USA to train as an orthopedic nurse. My father was a photographer for most of his life, and spent his early life crossing the North Atlantic and further afield as a ship’s photographer in the 1920s and ’30s when travel by ocean liner was the way to travel.


My global travel adventures had somewhat humble beginnings however. I took my first flight in the summer of 1966 (aged 17), when I traveled to the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland for a spot of bird watching. In September 1969, as an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, I traveled overland to Czechoslovakia to take part in a folk festival. Then, in April 1972, I flew to Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey to attend a genetic resources conference, and had the opportunity of seeing the ancient ruins at Ephesus for the first time.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus


Those trips were just the beginning. By the end of 1972, I was ready for my next big adventure: moving to Lima, Peru to join the newly-founded International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist studying the center’s large and impressive germplasm collection of South American potato varieties.

The beauty of diverse potato varieties from the Andes of South America

With my PhD supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, among potato varieties in the CIP germplasm collection at Huancayo (3300 masl) in Central Peru

As I’ve written in other blog posts, I had an ambition (probably a much stronger feeling than that) to visit Peru, even when I was still a young boy. And then in January 1973, there I was in Peru, and being paid to be there to boot.

Without hesitation I can say that the three years I spent in Peru had the strongest influence on the rest of my career, in research and teaching in the field of plant genetic resources, and international agricultural development.

Peru had everything: landscapes, culture, history, archaeology, people, cuisine. It’s the most marvellous country.

Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru

Looking east back over Cajamarca (in the north of Peru), with the mists rising up from the Inca baths.

Just check out my photo album to see what I mean.


While Peru has all manner of landscapes—coastal deserts, mountains, jungle—Steph and I have also been fortunate to experience the wonders of so many more elsewhere, but particularly across the USA, which we have visited regularly since retirement in 2010 as our elder daughter Hannah and her family reside in Minnesota. And during those visits, we have made long road trips, exploring almost the whole of the country, except the Deep South.

Where do I start? The one place I would return to tomorrow is Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. It’s not only the landscape that inspires, but Canyon de Chelly is all about the Navajo Nation and its persecution in the 19th century.

Then of course there’s the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and other desert landscapes in the US southwest.

In the west we could hardly fail to be appreciate the majesty of Crater Lake in Oregon and the redwoods of northern California.

There’s so much history at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers on the borders of Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. These rivers were integral to the exploration of the continent, and during the American Civil War of the 1860s whole armies were transported to the different theaters of war along their reaches.

At Fort Defiance, Cairo, IL with the Ohio on the left, and the Mississippi on the right

In Asia, during a visit to Laos (where I had a project) Steph and I enjoyed a day trip up the mighty Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, north of Luang Prabang.

L: temple with hundreds of Buddhist carvings at the Pak Ou caves along the Mekong at its confluence with the Nam Ou river, 25 km north of Luang Prabang

I’ve seen two of the most impressive waterfalls in the world: Niagara Falls and Iguazu Falls from the Brazil side.

Niagara Falls (top) from the Canadian side; aerial view of the Iguazu Falls (bottom)

We climbed (by car I have to mention) to the top of the highest mountain in the northeast USA, Mt Washington (at 6288 ft or 1916 m), on a glorious June day in 2018 that offered views across the region for mile upon mile.

In Switzerland, I fulfilled another long-standing ambition in 2004 to view the Matterhorn at Zermatt.

I’ve visited several African countries.  You can’t but be impressed by the sheer size of the African continent. I never thought I’d ever see landscapes that went on forever like the Great Rift Valley in Kenya and Ethiopia. Sadly, I don’t appear to have saved any photos from my 1993 trip to Ethiopia when I first went into the Rift Valley. It was a day trip from Addis Ababa to a research station at Debre Zeit. Apart from the expansive landscape, what caught my attention most perhaps was the abundant bird life. There were African fish eagles in the trees, almost as common as sparrows. And around the research station itself, it was almost impossible not to tread on ground foraging birds of one sort or another, so numerous and unafraid of humans.

On another trip to Kenya, I saw wildlife in the 177 sq km Nairobi National Park, right on the outskirts of the city. Although I’ve traveled through a number of sub-Saharan countries I’ve yet to enjoy the full ‘safari experience’ and see large aggregations of wildlife. That’s definitely a bucket list item.

Giraffe and water buffalo in the Nairobi National Park

During the 19 years I spent in the Philippines I had the good fortune to explore an entirely different underwater landscape after I learned to scuba dive in March 1993.

Featherstars at Kirby’s Rock, Anilao, Philippines, January 2005

I made more than 360 dives but only at Anilao, some 90 km or so south of Los Baños where I worked at the International Rice Research Institute. The reefs at Anilao are some of the most biodiverse in the Philippines, indeed almost anywhere.


Three man-made landscapes: one in the Philippines, one in Peru, and another in Germany particularly come to mind. These are witness to the incredible engineering that built the rice terraces of the Ifugao region of northern Luzon in the Philippines, the potato terraces of Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru that I visited in February 1974, and the vineyards on the steep slopes of the Ahr Valley, just south of Bonn. The wines are not bad, either.

Rice terraces near Banaue, Philippines

Potato terraces at Cuyo Cuyo, Peru

Vineyards in the Ahr Valley, Germany


Several archaeological wonders are seared into my mind. Steph and I have together visited four of them. Two others—the Great Wall of China and Ancient Rome—on my own during work trips.

In December 1973 we spent a night at Machu Picchu in southern Peru. This was my second visit, as I’d made a day visit there in January that year, just 10 days after I’d first landed in Peru. In 1975, while visiting friends in Mexico on the way back to the UK, we saw the magnificent pyramids at Teotihuacan near Mexico City. During the five years we lived in Central America between 1976 and 1980, Steph joined me on one of my trips to Guatemala, and we took a weekend off to fly into the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Magical! And once we were in Asia, Steph, Philippa (our younger daughter) and I took a Christmas-New Year break at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.


Among the man-made features that cannot fail to inspire are the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, overlooking Rio de Janeiro, and New York’s Empire State Building that Steph, Hannah (then almost three) went up in March 1981.


I guess I could go on and on, but where to draw the line?

However, I cannot finish without mentioning two more places that are near and dear to me. The first is the International Potato Center in Lima. That was where my career started. So CIP will always have a special place in my heart.

The other is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños, 70 km south of Manila.

Aerial view of the IRRI campus

As I mentioned, Steph and I lived there for almost 19 years. Our two daughters were raised and went to school in the Philippines. My roles at IRRI, as head of genetic resources then as a director were professionally fulfilling and, to a large degree, successful. When I retired in 2010 I left IRRI with a clear sense of achievement. I do miss all the wonderful folks that I worked alongside, too numerous to mention but my staff in the Genetic Resources Center and DPPC are particularly special to me.

With genebank manager, Pola de Guzman, in the cold storage of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI

Standing in IRRI’s demonstration plots in front of the FF Hill admin building where I, as Director for Program Planning & Communications, had my office. That’s Mt Makiling, a dormant volcano in the background.

The IRRI campus is special. It’s where, in the 1960s the Green Revolution for rice in Asia was planned and delivered. It really should be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.


Over the decades I’ve worked for and with some remarkable scientists, all dedicated to making food and agricultural systems productive and sustainable. I’ve written about some here: Joe Smartt, Jack Hawkes, Trevor Williams, Richard Sawyer, Jim Bryan, Bob Zeigler.

Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd and I were graduate students together, colleagues at the University of Birmingham during the 1980s, and collaborating research scientists during the years at IRRI. Since we both lived in Bromsgrove, we would travel together into the university each day. We’ve published three books on genetic resources together. Following my retirement in 2010, Brian and I would meet up every few weeks to enjoy a pint of beer or three at our local pub, the Red Lion, in Bromsgrove where we both lived. Until that is I moved away from Bromsgrove to the northeast of England almost a year ago.

I’ve also met with royalty, presidents, politicians, diplomats, Nobel Prize winners, and many others during their visits to IRRI, and who inevitably made a bee-line for the genebank.


So what’s still on my bucket list. The Covid pandemic has put the kibosh on international travel over the past two summers. We’ve not visited our family in the USA since 2019. I’m not sure I would want to undertake long road trips in the future (more than 2000 miles) as we have in past visits, even though there are some regions, like the Deep South that we’d still like to visit.

Number 1 on my list would be New Zealand. I’ve always hankered to go there, and maybe we’ll still get that opportunity. Also Cape Province in South Africa: for the landscapes, Table Mountain, and the plant life. Not to mention the superb South African wines from that region. The lakes region of Argentina around Bariloche, and southern Chile are also on my list. And although Steph and I have traveled quite extensively in Australia, down the east coast from Sydney to Melbourne, it’s such a large country that there’s so many other places to see like Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef.

I’ve been to a fair number of countries in Europe but mostly when I have been on work trips. I’d like to take Steph to some of the places I’ve already enjoyed. However, Brexit has certainly made travel into many European countries rather more challenging.

But until the Covid pandemic is under control and there are few or no restrictions on international travel I guess we won’t be going anywhere soon. For the time being they remain on my wish list for future adventures.


 

The Commonwealth Potato Collection – it really is a treasure trove

A few days ago, a friend and former colleague, Dr Glenn Bryan posted a link on his Facebook page to a story—Treasure trove could hold secrets to potato problems—that appeared in the online edition of Dundee’s The Courier on 20 August.

It was all about the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that is held at The James Hutton Institute at Invergowrie, just west of Dundee.

Glenn leads the Potato Genetics and Breeding Group there, and also has overall responsibility for the CPC, ably assisted by collection curator Gaynor McKenzie.

Glenn Bryan and Gaynor McKenzie at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, where wild potato species in the Commonwealth Potato Collection are conserved.

Glenn and I go back almost 30 years when, as a young scientist at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, he was a member of a rice research project, funded by the British government, that brought together staff at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, the University of Birmingham (where I had been a faculty member for a decade from 1981), and the JIC to use molecular markers to study IRRI’s large and globally-important germplasm collection conserved in its International Rice Genebank.

L-R: me, Glenn, and John Newbury (who later became professor at the University of Worcester) during a spot of sight-seeing near IRRI in 1993

The Commonwealth Potato Collection has a long and distinguished history, going back more than 80 years, much longer than the rice collection at IRRI. It is one of a handful of potato germplasm collections around the world in which breeders have identified disease and pest resistance genes to enhance the productivity of cultivated varieties. The CPC is particularly important from a plant quarantine perspective because the collection has been routinely tested and cleaned for various pathogens, particularly seed-borne pathogens.

Jack Hawkes

It is a collection with which Steph and I have both a personal and professional connection, from the 1970s and 80s. It’s also the legacy of one man, Professor Jack Hawkes (1915-2007) with whom I had the privilege of studying for both my MSc and PhD degrees.

Let me tell that story.


In December 1938, a young botanist—just 23 years old the previous June—set off from Liverpool, headed to Lima, Peru to join the British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, the adventure of a lifetime.

Jack in Bolivia in 1939

John ‘Jack’ Gregory Hawkes, a Christ’s College, Cambridge graduate, was destined to become one of the world’s leading potato experts and a champion of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

He was the taxonomic botanist on the 1939 expedition, which was led by experienced plant collector Edwards Kent Balls (1892-1984). Medical doctor and amateur botanist William ‘Bill’ Balfour Gourlay (1879-1966) was the third member of the expedition. Balls and Gourlay had been collecting plants in Mexico (including some potatoes) in 1938 before moving on to Peru for the ‘Empire’ expedition.

The expedition had originally been scheduled to start in 1937, but had to be delayed because of ill health of the original expedition leader, Dr PS Hudson, Director of the Empire Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics in Cambridge. Jack had been hired as his assistant. Whilst waiting for the expedition to get underway, Jack took the opportunity—in August 1938—to visit Leningrad to pick the brains of Russian botanists, Drs SM Bukasov, VS Juzepczuk, and VS Lechnovicz who had already collected potatoes in South America. Jack openly acknowledged that ‘as a raw recently graduated student, [he] knew very little about potatoes’.

Nikolai Vavilov

Not only did Jack receive useful advice from these knowledgeable botanists, but he also met with the great geneticist and ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’ Nikolai Vavilov on several occasions during his visit to Leningrad and Moscow, ‘an experience that changed [his] life in many ways’. Vavilov had a profound effect on Jack’s subsequent career as an academic botanist and genetic resources pioneer. Alas there do not appear to be any surviving photos of Jack with Vavilov.

‘Solanum vavilovii’ growing at an experiment station near Leningrad in 1938

In Leningrad, Jack took this photo (right) of a wild potato species that had been described as Solanum vavilovii by Juzepczuk and Bukasov in 1937. Sadly that name is no longer taxonomically valid, and vavilovii is now considered simply as a variant of the species Solanum wittmackii that had been described by the German botanist Friedrich August Georg Bitter in 1913.


The Empire expedition lasted eight months from January 1939, covering northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and ending in Colombia (a country where Jack was to reside for three years from 1948 when he was seconded to establish a national potato research station near Bogota).

Route taken by the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition

More than 1150 samples of cultivated and wild potatoes were collected in these five countries as well as a further 46 samples collected by Balls and Gourlay in Mexico in 1938.

Here is a small selection of photographs taken during the expedition, reproduced here by courtesy of the Hawkes family.


By the time the expedition ended in early September 1939, war with Germany had already been declared, and Jack’s return to the UK by ship convoy from Halifax, Newfoundland was not as comfortable as the outbound voyage nine months earlier, docking in Liverpool early in November.

Jack published an official expedition report in March 1941. Then, in 2003, he published an interesting and lengthy memoir of the expedition, Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes.

Redcliffe N Salaman

Potato tubers (and presumably seeds) were shipped back to the UK, and after a quarantine inspection, were planted out in a glasshouse at the Potato Virus Research Station, Cambridge whose director was the renowned botanist (and originally a medical doctor) Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, author of the seminal work on potatoes, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and reprinted with a new introduction by Hawkes in 1985. I jealously guard the signed copy that Jack gave me.

On his return to the UK in 1939 Jack began to study the collected germplasm, describing several new species, and completing his PhD thesis (supervised by Salaman) at the University of Cambridge in 1941.

South American potato species in the Cambridge glasshouse in the summer of 1940

Among the species identified in the course of Jack’s dissertation research was Solanum ballsii from northern Argentina, which he dedicated to EK Balls in a formal description in 1944. However, in his 1963 revised taxonomy of the tuber-bearing Solanums (potatoes), Jack (with his Danish colleague Jens Peter Hjerting, 1917-2012) recognized Solanum ballsii simply as a subspecies of Solanum vernei, a species which has since provided many important sources of resistance to the potato cyst nematode.


Jack Hawkes in the glasshouse of the Empire Potato Collection at Cambridge in July 1947.

The 1939 germplasm was the foundation of the Empire Potato Collection. When the collection curator Dr Kenneth S Dodds was appointed Director of the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury in 1954, the collection moved with him, and was renamed the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

By the end of the decade (or early 1960s) the CPC was on the move again. This time to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh when Dr Norman W Simmonds moved there in 1959. He rose through the ranks to become the station’s Director.

But that was not the end of the CPC’s peripatetic existence. It remained at the SPBS until the early 1980s, when the SPBS amalgamated with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute (which became the Scottish Crop Research Institute or SCRI, and now known as the James Hutton Institute), and the collection moved to its present site near Dundee.


I am not sure how much the CPC grew in the intervening years, but there was a significant boost to the size and importance of the collection around 1987. Let me explain.

As I already mentioned, Jack spent three years in Colombia from 1948, returning to the UK in 1951 when he was appointed Lecturer in Taxonomy in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. He was given a personal chair as Professor of Taxonomic Botany in April 1961, and became Head of Department and Mason Professor of Botany in July 1967. He remained at Birmingham until retirement in September 1982.

It was during his Birmingham years that Jack’s work on the tuber-bearing Solanums expanded significantly with several important monographs and taxonomic revisions published, based on his own field work over the years and experimental studies back at Birmingham on the potato samples he brought back to the UK and which formed an important collection in its own right. Because of the quarantine threat from these seeds (particularly of sexually-transmitted pathogens or new variants of potato viruses already present in the UK), Jack had a special licence from the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to maintain his collection at Birmingham. I’ve written about that special quarantine situation here.

In 1958, with Peter Hjerting and young research assistant Richard Lester (who later joined the Department of Botany as a Lecturer), Jack made a six month expedition to the USA , Mexico, and Central America. Here is an account of that trip. Besides potatoes, many other species were made for other institutions and botanic gardens.

Collecting a sample of Solanum agrimonifolium (No. 1854) in Guatemala. L: Jack Hawkes, Peter Hjerting, and Morse (driver?); R: Richard Lester

Just three months after I arrived at Birmingham in September 1970 to enrol on the MSc course on plant genetic resources, Jack was off on his travels once again, this time to Bolivia (report) accompanied by Peter Hjerting once again, his research assistant Phil Cribb and, in South America by Zósimo Huamán from the International Potato Center (CIP) and Moisés Zavaleta and others from Bolivia. Jack and Peter made another trip to Bolivia in 1974 (with research assistant Dave Astley), and another in 1980. They published their monograph of The Potatoes of Bolivia in 1989.

Here are some images from the 1971 expedition, courtesy of Phil Cribb.


In September 1971, Zósimo Huamán and Moisés Zavaleta came to Birmingham to study on the genetic resources MSc course. In that same cohort was a young botanist, Stephanie Tribble, recently graduated from the University of Wales – Swansea (now Swansea University). During the summer of 1972, Steph and I became ‘an item’, so-to-speak. However, by then I was already making plans to leave the UK and join CIP in Lima by January 1973, and on graduation, Steph was keen to find a position to use the experiences and skills she had gained on the course.

Just at that time, a Scientific Officer position opened at the SPBS, as assistant to Dalton Glendinning who was the curator of the CPC. Steph duly applied and was appointed from about October that year. Jack must have supported her application. Coincidentally, the MSc course external examiner was no other that Norman Simmonds who met Steph during his course assessment.

I moved to Peru in January 1973, and within a few days discovered that Jack had mentioned Steph to CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer. Well, to cut a long story short, Steph was offered a position as Assistant Geneticist at CIP, to support management of CIP’s large potato collection, similar to the role she’d had at Pentlandfield. She resigned from the SPBS and joined me in Lima in July that year. We married there in October. We remained with CIP in Peru and Central America for another eight years

Steph working in one of CIP’s screen-houses at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima in 1974.

In April 1981 I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at Birmingham, 18 months before Jack’s retirement, the aim being that I would assume Jack’s teaching commitments on the MSc course. When I also took over the Hawkes potato collection in 1982, I had high hopes of identifying funding for biosystematics and pre-breeding research. That was not the case, and as the collection needed a dedicated glasshouse and technician I could not justify (nor financially support) holding on to such valuable research space. And, in any case, continuing with the Hawkes collection was actually blocking the opportunities for other potato research because of the MAFF-imposed restrictions.

Dave Downing was the glasshouse technician who carefully managed the Hawkes collection at Birmingham for many years.

So, with some regret but also acknowledging that Jack’s collection would be better placed elsewhere, I contacted my colleagues at the CPC to see if they would be interested to receive it—lock, stock, and barrel. And that indeed was what happened. I’m sure many new potato lines were added to the CPC. The germplasm was placed in quarantine in the first instance, and has passed through various stages of testing before being added officially to the CPC. Throughout the 80s and 90s Jack would visit the CPC from time-to-time, and look through the materials, helping with the correct identification of species and the like.

His interest in and contributions to potato science remained with him almost up to his death in 2007. By then he had become increasingly frail, and had moved into a care home, his wife of more than 50 years, Barbara, having passed away some years previously. By then, Jack’s reputation and legacy was sealed. Not only has his scientific output contributed to the conservation and use of potato genetic resources worldwide, embodied in the CPC that he helped establish all those decades earlier, but through the MSc course that he founded in 1969, hundreds of professionals worldwide have continued to carry the genetic conservation torch. A fine legacy, indeed!


I’m not the one with green fingers . . .

Much as I enjoy visiting gardens, I do not particularly enjoy gardening nor have any talent for it. My job is just to mow the grass, when needed.

Steph, on the other hand, became a keen gardener when we returned to the UK in March 1981 after more than eight years in South and Central America; we were married in Peru in October 1973.  We bought a house in the northeast Worcestershire town of Bromsgrove, about 13 miles south of Birmingham city center, convenient for my daily commute into the city where I had landed a lectureship at the University of Birmingham.


Built around 1975, our newly-acquired house didn’t have much of a laid-out garden. With lawns on the front of the house and at the rear, there were some meager flower beds around the edges, a lean-to greenhouse (cobbled together by the original owners from redundant wooden patio doors), and a five year old weeping willow tree that we decided to get rid of before it became too large or its roots ran riot, causing damage to neighboring properties, and even ours in the long term.

In autumn 1982, we replaced the willow with a Himalayan birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii.

We’d done our research and felt that this jacquemontii birch was the ideal tree for our garden. It wasn’t expected to grow too tall. I went to our local Webb’s garden center to collect it, and it was small enough to fit in the passenger foot-well of my 1981 Ford Escort.

By January 2017, however, we’d decided it was no longer fit for purpose in our garden. Despite several attempts to keep it in check over the years with professional pruning, it simply had grown too tall, was shading a considerable part of the garden, and besides that, sucking up lots of moisture and stressing all the plants roundabouts. This was how it looked in October 2010.

So we called in the tree surgeon and had it felled. Always a sad thing to do, but it was the right decision for this garden.

In 1983 we’d finally demolished the lean-to greenhouse, and erected a small 8 x 6 foot Hall’s aluminium frame replacement which Steph used to raise seedlings and some vegetables like tomatoes. We also had the patio remodeled and a rockery and small fishpond added.

The lean-to greenhouse is on the right hand side, at the back of the garden, against an west-facing wall that caught the afternoon sunshine.

Throughout the 1980s, the garden came along nicely. But then, in July 1991, we headed to the Philippines for the next 19 years, and the garden had to more or less look after itself, until we returned in April 2010 when I retired. During the intervening years we’d had someone come by during the summer months to mow the grass, front and back. But apart from that, there was virtually no maintenance for 10-11 months of the year, apart from the few weeks we spent on home leave each summer. Then Steph would be busy getting things back into shape.

Since 2010, the garden flourished, with beds of colorful perennials such as columbines and foxgloves among my favorites. This is how the garden looked in 2016.

And in these videos, you can appreciate how much pleasure the garden gave us over the years.


However, in 2020 it was time to move on. We’d already made a decision in November 2019 to move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, to be closer to our younger daughter Philippa and her family. We put our house on the market in January 2020 and waited for the offers to roll in.

Then the pandemic hit, and we braced ourselves for a long delay. Luck was on our side, however, and there was one family keen to purchase No. 4. The sale finally went through on 30 September last year, and the evening before we took a sentimental walk around the garden, wine glasses in hand. Click on the image below to open a photo album.


We rented a house for the first six months, but just a week after we arrived in Newcastle, we found the house we went on to buy, on the northeast side of the city, and just 10 minutes by car from the North Sea coast!

To say that the front and back gardens were unimaginative would be an understatement. Both were just patches of lawn, about 11 x 10 m at the rear of the house, and maybe 4 x 3 on the front.

15 February 2021

20 April 2021

Before leaving Bromsgrove, Steph had collected seeds from most of her favorite plants, or taken cuttings. So we brought them in half a dozen crates full of small pots, and carefully nurtured them through our first northeast winter.

Then it was time to repack them into the crates to our new home, where they remained on the patio and alongside the fence until we had decided how we wanted to transform our garden space.

Steph took time to finalize her plan for the rear garden. I drew up this version that we sent to potential garden landscapers. All we wanted them to do was remove the excess turf, and bring in some top soil as we’d discovered that beneath the lawn was a pretty heavy clay soil.

We accepted one of the tenders by mid-April, and Steph began to layout the design using one of the garden hoses, then sticks.

20 April 2021

26 April 2021

The landscapers spent almost three days at the end of April to remove the turf, dig out the path across the lawn, and add the gravel bed around the shed.

27 April 2021

28 April 2021

29 April 2021

29 April 2021

Then it was time for Steph to begin planting, which was not so easy given the heavy soil.

16 June 2021

14 July 2021

And so, where are we today? Making progress. I guess this first year it’s an opportunity to discover which plants thrive or survive the winter. We have lots of different plants, and no doubt we’ll increase those that do well. Nasturtiums (grown from seed) are already showing great promise, although some have been heavily predated by black-fly. Verbena bonariensis, dahlias, cone flowers (Echinacia varieties), and a host of others are showing promise such as first year biennials like foxgloves, while lilies, succulents and other delicates are thriving in pots. We have also to decide what to do with one part of the garden, close to the house that does flood after heavy rain.

So, mid-August, we do feel that we have the makings of a nice garden, which will hopefully go from strength to strength. We still have to decide on a tree to plant, although we’re currently tending towards a crab apple variety.

It’s hard not to reflect on what we left behind in Bromsgrove. But I have to keep telling myself that what we had enjoyed there was the fruition of almost 40 years tender loving care. It will take a year or so before our new borders show something of equivalent brilliance. It will nevertheless be worth the wait.


Not so good in the field . . .

I have a rather embarrassing confession to make. Although I have degrees in botany, I’m not very good at all at identifying plants in the field. It’s just not something that has ever come easily. But I do know how to identify different species. More of that later.

Birds are a different kettle of fish altogether (says he, mixing his metaphors). I have little difficulty in identifying most of the species I come across. Maybe that’s because I’ve had an interest in bird watching since I was a small boy.

I came late to botany, however. It wasn’t until I was studying for my university entrance exams (known here in the UK as the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level exams) that I realized that botany was the degree course for me, something I achieved at the University of Southampton (in a combined honors degree with geography) for three years from 1967.

Les Watson

During that first year, and on a field trip to the west of Ireland, we systematically studied the different families of flowering plants, under the careful guidance of fellow Leekensian¹ Les Watson who was a lecturer in plant taxonomy at Southampton.

But after graduation, my interest in all things botanical turned to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, and that became my research interest for the next 40 years, focusing on potatoes in South and Central America during the 1970s, on potatoes and grain legumes when I taught at the University of Birmingham in the 1980s, and then rice after I joined the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1991 up to my retirement in 2010.

With my Birmingham PhD supervisor, Professor Jack Hawkes, identifying potato varieties in the field genebank of the International Potato Center in Peru in 1974, and collecting wild species in the Andes northeast of Lima in March 1975.


So I’ve never been much focused on field botany, and unlike many amateur botanists and naturalists, didn’t have much enthusiasm for naming all the plants I came across. It’s a bit ironic really because in 1981 when I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in plant biology, I was ‘asked’ to contribute to a second year module on flowering plant taxonomy. My contributions had less to do with identifying and studying the various plant families per se than understanding how and why variation in plant species comes about, and how variation patterns are treated in formal taxonomy.

In recent months, however, my interest has turned to plant identification. Since Steph and I moved to the northeast of England last October, I have tried to get out for a walk every day, a minimum of two miles, weather permitting. We have discovered the fantastic waggonways that crisscross Tyneside, the remnants of a busy coal mining industry that opened up in the nineteenth century and eventually met its demise in the second half of the last century. The waggonways are the routes of the railway lines that carried coal from the mines to quays (or staiths as they were known locally) on the River Tyne from where it was shipped all over the world.

Nowadays the waggonways are a haven for wildlife, and a lush abundance of plant species almost too numerous to count. They have become important (vital even) biodiversity corridors connecting different habitats across Newcastle and into the surrounding Northumberland landscape.

And, as I walking along the Cramlington Waggonway recently close to home on my way to the Silverlink Biodiversity Park (developed on a former coal waste tip), I was struck about how many of the plants I could not identify, although many were familiar. But I did want to know their names.

Now, as part of my student training in botany, I learnt how to use a flora, which is a list of all the species known to grown in a particular area or region. For the UK, the most comprehensive flora was the Flora of the British Isles, by Clapham, Tutin and Warburg, first published in 1952, and still in print today after several editions and revisions, but supplanted to some extent perhaps by Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles, first published in 1991 and now in its 4th edition.

The essential thing about these floras is that they have a key to help you identify plants.

However, recognizing many of the plant families or genera as I can, I don’t have to start at the beginning of a key, but can jump to a particular family or genus to narrow down my search for the correct identity.


But my quest to identify plants has been made a whole lot easier. I follow lots of botanical related feeds on Twitter, and a couple of weeks ago, I came across one tweet referring to a plant identification site called Pl@ntNet, for which there is an app for use of mobile phones and the like. So I thought I’d give it a try.

Essentially, you upload an image to the site, and it comes back with a probability (%) of it being a particular species, but also suggesting other candidates albeit at a lower probability.

So what is Pl@ntNet? On its website, it states that Pl@ntNet is a citizen science project available as an app that helps you identify plants thanks to your pictures. This project is part of the Floris’Tic initiative, which aims to promote scientific, technical and industrial culture in plant sciences. For this, it relies on a consortium of complementary expertise in Botany, IT and Project Animation.

Pl@ntNet is a French project under the Agropolis Foundation initiated in 2009 with the objective of developing new forms of identification, sharing and accumulation of data on plants. The mobile application allows you to take photos of a plant, and to compare these photos with those of an expertly-validated and dynamically updated image base, so as to facilitate the identification of a plant. The application, with more than a million downloads, and several thousand daily users demonstrates the keen interest of the general public and the educational world for this type of technology, and a thirst for knowledge about the plants around us. This initiative illustrates the great motivation of the teams involved to produce and disseminate new forms of access to knowledge in the field of botany.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I decided to give it a whirl. Like all projects of this type, it depends on expert feedback, so there is a large database of photos of correctly identified species, and these are also cataloged into the floras from different parts of the world, such as Western Europe or Costa Rica, for example. In fact there are 35 subcategories to narrow down your selection. And thousands upon thousands of images of flowers, leaves, habit and habitat, fruits and the like.

So I started with a plant I did know to test how the app worked and its accuracy. I came across a patch of bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum L., Geraniaceae) on the sand dunes close to home. I took a closeup of the flowers and submitted it to Pl@ntNet there and then. Within seconds, a result came back: bloody cranesbill, 95%!

On a walk last week in Northumberland, I saw a daisy-like plant that looked familiar. I’d seen something similar growing at Biddulph Grange (a National Trust property in North Staffordshire some years back). Again, within seconds, Pl@ntNet suggested Doronicum pardalianches L, Asteraceae, commonly known as giant leopard’s-bane), but with only a 56% certainty based on the flowers. So I took another photo, of the leaves this time, and Pl@ntNet again proposed the same species, with 80% certainty. So I’m pretty confident that this was indeed giant leopard’s-bane.

I must say how impressed I am with this app. As I take my smartphone with me on all my walks, Pl@ntNet will be part of my armory to identify wildlife, along with my binoculars and camera. It really is worth having a go. The app is a little memory hungry at 231 MB, but already I’m finding that my field botany is improving, and it’s so much fun having at least an indication there and then of a species identity that can be verified later on with reference to a flora, should the app not give a high identification value.

Maybe, one day, I’ll even become a competent field botanist. Although that might be stretching things a little too far.


¹ A native of Leek, a small market town in North Staffordshire where I grew up.

Leaving academia . . . heading east

28 June 1991. It was a Friday. Ten years and three months since I joined the University of Birmingham as a Lecturer in Plant Biology. And it was my last day in that post. A brief farewell party in the School of Biological Sciences at the end of the day, and that was it. I was no longer an academic.

I’d left Peru in March 1981 with such enthusiasm for the next stage of my career at Birmingham. Having spent the previous eight years and three months in South and Central America with the International Potato Center (CIP), Steph and I were looking forward to setting up home with our daughter Hannah (then almost three) back in the UK. I joined the university on 1 April. Was I the fool?

By the end of the 1980s, however, my enthusiasm for academia had waned considerably. Not that I wasn’t getting on. Far from it. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, I had an active research group (looking at the relationships between crop plants and their wild species relatives), and I enjoyed teaching.

But I began to get itchy feet, and when the opportunity arose (in September 1990) for a move to the Philippines, to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as Head of the newly-established Genetic Resources Center (with its mandate to manage the world’s largest and genetically most important genebank for rice), I didn’t hesitate. Although, I have to admit, Steph and our daughters (Philippa was born in 1982) were less keen on the idea.

In early January 1991, I was interviewed for the position at IRRI (at its research center in Los Baños, about 70 km south of Manila, the capital city of the Philippines)

This was only my second trip to Asia. I’m not sure how or why at this distance of 30 years, but I flew to Manila (MNL) with British Airways out of London-Gatwick (LGW). Having checked in, I was informed that the flight to Manila was delayed because of a fault with the assigned aircraft (a 747), and that it would be replaced by an incoming aircraft – from Miami, which wasn’t expected for at least five hours. In the end, the delay was almost 15 hours, and I arrived in Los Baños just after 1 am on the Monday morning, having set out from the UK early on Saturday, with the expectation of arriving in the Philippines with just under 24 hours to recover from my trip before the interview schedule began. In the end, I had less than four hours sleep, and was up for a 7 am breakfast meeting with Director General Klaus Lampe (right) and his three Deputy Directors General!

By the end of the month I’d agreed a three year contract. Lampe wanted me to start on 1 April. But, as I explained—and he reluctantly accepted—I still had teaching and examination commitments at the university that would take me up to the end of June. So the earliest I would be able to join the institute was 1 July.

Even so, Lampe asked me to represent IRRI at a genetic resources meeting held in April at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome. That would be the first of many meetings at FAO and even more visits to Rome where the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) also had its office.


I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. With just one day between leaving Birmingham and heading east, I still had some final packing. And, in any case, I had to make sure that everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion for Steph and the girls, as we’d agreed I would head off to the Philippines on my own, in the first instance, get settled into my new job, and they would join me just after Christmas.

That last couple of days were quite stressful. My friend and close colleague at Birmingham, Brian Ford-Lloyd and his wife Pat dropped by on the Saturday to wish me Bon Voyage! Brian has often told me subsequently that I looked rather drained. After all it was quite a step to up sticks and move the family to the Philippines. But it was a move we have never regretted.

Steph and I also agreed that we wouldn’t rent out our home in Bromsgrove (in northeast Worcestershire, and about thirteen miles south of Birmingham), but keep it locked up and safe in case we ever needed a bolt hole, as it were, should things not work out well at IRRI, or civil unrest required us to leave the country at short notice. Politics in the Philippines has always been volatile, to say the least.

So, come Sunday morning, it was a teary goodbye for all of us when the taxi arrived to take me to Birmingham airport (BHX) for the flight to MNL via London Heathrow (LHR) and Hong Kong (HKG). In subsequent years, and for a decade until Emirates had daily flights from BHX to Dubai (DXB) and on to MNL, we always flew with KLM via Amsterdam (AMS), much more convenient than transiting through LHR. Apart from our first home leave in the summer of 1992.

British Midland (now defunct) operated the connecting flight from BHX to LHR. Placing my two or three bags on the scales, the check-in agent told me that I was way over my allowance, and if I chose to check them through to MNL, then she would have to charge me £500. On the other hand, she could send them to LHR free of charge, and I could argue with my next carrier, British Airways, for the onward flight. She checked my schedule and we agreed there was more than sufficient time between landing in LHR and the departure of my HKG flight to pick up my bags in Terminal 1 and get to Terminal 4 to check-in for the HKG/MNL flight. Wrong!

The flight left BHX on time, but on landing at LHR we taxied to the perimeter of the apron because gates were either occupied or undergoing refurbishment. And there we sat for about 30 minutes until buses came along to take us to the terminal. All the while, my connection time was being eroded by the minute. Then I had to wait for my bags to offload, and for the bus to Terminal 4. On previous transits through LHR between terminals, the bus had always crossed to the other side of the airport where Terminal 4 is located through a tunnel, a journey of a matter of minutes. Not that day, however. Our bus headed out on to the public roads, hit the M25 then exited close to Terminal 4. By the time I reached the back of a check-in queue for my flight, it was due to depart in just five minutes. Panic stations!

Leaving my bags where they were, I politely walked to the front of the queue explaining to other waiting passengers my dilemma, and they kindly let me move to the front. I was in luck. The flight had been delayed by at least 30 minutes, and the agent reckoned I could still make it. What to do about the excess baggage charges? He agreed not to charge me the full amount, and after several attempts to charge my credit card, he waived the fees, told me to put the bags on an express shute, and RUN!

The aircraft door was closed immediately after I boarded and found the only empty seat in Business Class (my reserved seat having been reallocated), and we were off. I sat there, thanking my lucky stars that I’d made the flight after all, feeling rather sweaty, and hoping it wouldn’t be too long after take-off before the cabin crew brought round the drinks trolley and I could get stuck into my first G&T.


I don’t remember too much about the trip from that point. Not because of over-imbibing, I hasten to add. It was just uneventful. On arrival in Manila, I was greeted by Director of Administration Tim Bertotti (right) and his Vietnamese wife who would be my ‘welcomers’ for the next few weeks, show me the IRRI ropes, so to speak, and be a couple I could turn to for advice. Having collected my heavy bags, and found the IRRI driver we headed south to Los Baños, where I stayed in the IRRI Guesthouse for the next month or so until the house allocated to me had been redecorated.

I can’t deny that the first night in Los Baños was quite miserable. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of regret, whether I had made the right choice to give up a tenured position at the university (a number of colleagues there thought I was crazy to leave a tenured position for the ‘insecurity’ of short-term contracts overseas). And how would the family fare during the intervening six months until they headed east? So many questions, so many uncertainties. And hard to sleep because of jet-lag.


But the next morning there was no time for self pity. I had a job to do, and just get stuck in. A driver collected me from the Guesthouse after breakfast and took me down to the research center, less than a ten minute drive across the campus of the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). I got my ID, was assigned a car, and made an appointment to meet with Klaus Lampe.

Jack Hawkes

Then it was off to GRC in the Brady Laboratory, a building named after IRRI’s second Director General, Nyle Brady. I was already aware that there was only measured enthusiasm among the GRC staff for my appointment. Three of us had been interviewed in January, all with MSc and PhD degrees from the University of Birmingham, and Professor Jack Hawkes had supervised our PhD research. The other two candidates already managed genebanks; I had no hands-on experience of genebank management. One of the candidates, a Chinese Malay national, had carried out his thesis research at IRRI (on rice of course) with my predecessor in the IRRI gene bank, Dr TT Chang, co-supervising his research. He was a known quantity for the GRC staff and, I think, their preferred candidate. Instead they got this straight-talking Brit.

First things first. I needed to understand in detail how the genebank was currently being managed, who the key personnel were, and what were their thoughts about how things might change. I also had to manage the merger of the genebank (known in 1991 as the International Rice Germplasm Center) with another group, the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) that was coordinated by a senior Indian scientist, Dr Seshu Durvasula who, I’m sorry to say, had no intention of going along easily with the intended merger into GRC. He resented, I believe, that he had been overlooked for the leadership of GRC.  And, in any case, who was this British scientist with no rice experience?

Anyway, back to the genebank. I think the staff were quite surprised to be asked their opinions. That was not Dr Chang’s style. Thanks to Eves, Pola (who I quickly identified as someone to lead the genebank operations on a daily basis, as genebank manager), Ato, Tom, Soccie, the data management group (Adel, Myrna, and Vangie), and Yvette and Amy (who I assigned to wild species research) for being very patient, answering all my questions, and letting me know when one of my ideas was perhaps a step too far. But one thing was clear: the operations of the genebank had to be upgraded and made more efficient. After about six months I was ready to put a plan into operation. By then, Steph and the girls were ready to fly out to the Philippines to join me.

But I have to make special mention to two very special ladies, who made my first months at GRC (and IRRI in general) so much easier: the GRC secretaries Sylvia Arellano (L below) and Tessie Santos (R). Jewels in the IRRI crown.

Sylvia was my personal secretary, and had worked for TT Chang for a number of years before he retired. Tessie supported the other internationally-recruited scientist in the genebank, British geneticist Dr Duncan Vaughan, and the rest of the genebank staff as and when needed.

Sylvia (known as Syl to everyone) was a mine of information, knew exactly who to contact should I need to follow up on any issue, and was quick to advise me how to deal with colleagues (especially the old timers) with whom I had to work across the institute. She knew just how to get things done, call in favors, and the like. I reckon that without her day-to-day support my first few months at IRRI (before I knew the ropes or understood the institutional politics) would have been far less productive. I cannot thank her too much for all the support she gave me, and we remain in contact and good friends to this day, even though it’s eleven years since I retired from IRRI, and almost 25 years since she last worked with me.

When I was on home leave in the UK during the summer of 1997, I had a phone call from the then Director General, Dr George Rothschild, who asked ‘permission’ for Sylvia to move from my office to become Executive Secretary to the Director General. It was hardly an offer I could refuse, and in any case, it was a huge promotion for Syl. She remained as Executive Secretary to the DG until her retirement a few years back, serving under three DGs (possibly four) and an Acting DG.

Tessie was quite shy, and seemed rather in awe of me. But she was a valued member of the GRC staff, and on those occasions when Syl was away from the institute, Tessie would admirably step into her shoes as my personal secretary. After a few months and once she got used to me, Tessie began to relax in my presence. Tessie was just the sort of staff member that IRRI should be proud of: hard-working, loyal, knowledgeable. And it was my good fortune that Syl had someone like Tessie to back her up.


By the end of 1991, I was very much at home at IRRI. I had a good relationship with Klaus Lampe (well, for the next couple of years or so), I had the measure of my immediate boss, Deputy Director General for International Programs, Dr Fernando ‘Nanding’ Bernardo for whom, I’m sad to relate, I didn’t have much time, and I was moving ahead with plans for the upgrade of the genebank, and reorganization of the staff. It felt like the world was my oyster, and I looked forward to the coming year with the family in Los Baños as well.

Originally thinking that I’d remain at IRRI for perhaps a couple of three-year contracts, but certainly no longer than ten years, when I retired at the end of April 2010 I’d been at IRRI for almost 19 years. Joining IRRI was the best career move I made.


That’s not a fair question . . .

I worked overseas for much of my career—just over 27 years—in three countries. For those who are new to my blog, I’m from the UK, and I worked in agricultural research (on potatoes and rice) in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines, besides spending a decade in the UK in between teaching plant sciences at the University of Birmingham.

I have been asked, from time to time, which of the three countries Steph and I enjoyed the most. That’s not really a fair question.

Each country was a totally different experience, reflecting to a large extent that stage of our lives. We were young and newly-married in Peru in the early 1970s, our first time abroad. We raised our elder daughter Hannah in Costa Rica in the late 1970s, and were already in our early 40s when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, with two growing daughters: Hannah was 13, and Philippa just nine (born in Worcestershire in the UK). I got to learn a second language, Spanish, and became quite fluent by the time we left the Americas in 1981.

Now that I’ve been retired for over a decade, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on those years spent abroad.


laurent_amerique_du_sud_politiqueI won’t deny that I have a particular soft-spot for Peru. It was a country I’d wanted to visit since I was a small boy, when I often spent hours poring over maps of South America, imagining what those distant countries and cities would be like to visit. 

I don’t know why I was particularly drawn to the map of South America. I guess it’s the iconic shape for one thing. But, when I first moved up to high school in 1960, just before my 12th birthday, our geography lessons focused on several South American countries. I wrote to a number of embassies in London asking for information packs, and was rewarded over the following weeks with a host of brochures, maps, and the like.

Anyway, to cut a long story short (I have posted several stories elsewhere about my early days in Lima), I was offered, in February 1971, the opportunity to work in Peru, initially for just a year from September that year. Things didn’t go to plan, and it wasn’t until January 1973 that I actually landed in Lima, which became my home for the next three years.

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13 October 1973

Steph joined me in July, and we married the following October in the Miraflores suburb where we rented an apartment. Working at the International Potato Center (known as CIP through its Spanish acronym) we both traveled frequently to the center’s research station in Huancayo, an important town in the central Andes of Peru, in the broad and fertile Mantaro valley, a 300 km journey that often took six hours or more. The highway, the Carretera Central, crossed the Andes at a highest point of 4,843 metres (15,890 ft) at Ticlio (around Km 120).

peru-037

In my own work collecting indigenous varieties of potatoes, I traveled to many parts of northern Peru, in the Departments of Ancash, La Libertad, and Cajamarca in 1973 and 1974.

And to the south around Lake Titicaca in the Department of Puno and near Cuzco, where I continued my research towards a PhD.

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Collecting potato flower buds for chromosome counts, from a farmer’s field near Cuzco, in February 1974.

Steph and I also took great pleasure in taking our Volkswagen deep into the mountains, and on long trips down the coast to Arequipa and up to Lake Titicaca. And north to the Callejón de Huaylas in Ancash, below Peru’s highest mountain Huascarán, and on to Cajamarca further north.

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Looking north to the Callejon de Huaylas, and Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

I visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu just a week after I arrived in Peru, and had great pleasure taking Steph there in December the same year. In fact we delayed our honeymoon so we could book a stay at the tourist hotel at Machu Picchu (a hotel that closed many years ago).

Enjoying Machu Picchu in December 1973.

Our years in Lima were special. As I said, it was the first time Steph and I had worked abroad. CIP was a young organization, founded just over a year before I joined. There was a small group of staff, pioneers in a way, and there weren’t the layers of bureaucracy and procedures that bedevil much larger and longer-established organizations.

Peru is a stunningly beautiful country, and lived up to all my expectations. I was not disappointed. It had everything: culture, history, archaeology, landscapes. And wonderful food. You name it, Peru had it. 


But, after three years, it was time to move on, and that’s when we began a new chapter in Costa Rica from April 1976 a new chapter. Professionally, for me it was a significant move. I’d turned 27 a few months earlier. CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asked me to set up a research program to adapt potatoes to hot and humid conditions, so-called ‘tropical potatoes’. I was on my own; I had to rely on my own resources to a large extent. It was a steep learning curve, but so worthwhile and stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

We remained in Costa Rica for almost five years, based at a regional agricultural research institute, CATIE, in the small town of Turrialba, some 70 km east of San José, the capital city.

The CATIE administration building

We enjoyed trips to the volcanoes nearby: Turrialba, Irazú, and Poás, to the beaches of northwest Costa Rica, just south of the frontier with Nicaragua on the Guanacaste Peninsula.  Also to the north of Panama where potatoes were the main crop in the volcanic region just south of the international border.

Hannah was born in Costa Rica in April 1978. It was a great place to raise a small child. In 1980 we took her the Monteverde National Biological Reserve in the northwest of the country (and many hours drive from Turrialba) in search of the Resplendent Quetzal.

Professionally, I learnt a lot about potatoes as a crop, about the management of potato diseases, and seed production, and contributed to setting up one of the first multi-country programs among any of the CGIAR centers. PRECODEPA as it was known set the standard for multilateral cooperation between national programs for many years to come.

I had a great team, albeit small, working with me: Jorge, Moisés, and Leda, and I wrote about them and catching up again after 40 years in a recent blog post.

Costa Rica is such a beautiful, green country, a tropical paradise, with about 25% of its land area set aside for national parks and the like. It’s one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and I spent many hours sitting on the doorstep at home, sipping a super ice-cold beer (Cerveza Tropical was my beverage of choice) watching the multitude of birds that visited our garden. On one Christmas bird survey in the Turrialba valley, me and my birding partner spotted around 100 different species in half a day! And mammals as well: skunks, armadillos, and coatimundi among those found in the garden, not to mention some of the world’s most poisonous snakes.

After almost five years there, it was time to move on, with the expectation of a posting with CIP to the Philippines. Instead we returned to the UK in 1981, and didn’t actually make it to the Philippines until a decade later. An archipelago of more than 7600 islands; the Land of Smiles.


By the end of the 1980s I was much less enamored of academic life, and had begun to look out for new opportunities. One particularly interesting one came along in September 1990 when I applied for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila.

Having been interviewed at the beginning of January 1991, I was offered the position a couple of weeks later, and I moved to the Philippines (without the family) on 1 July that year. Steph and the girls joined me just after Christmas.

We had a comfortable single storey residence at IRRI Staff Housing, a gated community that nestled under a dormant volcano, Mt Makiling.

Mt Makiling, from the IRRI research farm.

The IRRI research center was about ten minutes from home, and an institute bus took us to and fro over the course of the day. Staff Housing had tennis courts and a swimming pool, as well as basketball and volleyball courts, all in regular use by my colleagues and their families. Lilia was our full-time, live-in helper for almost the whole 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s there was also a large group of children the same age as Hannah and Philippa, and Staff Housing was a safe environment for them to play, although I have since learned that they all got up to some daring escapades at night. Like climbing the water tower!

Steph kept herself busy with her daily swim, and a range of hobbies, including her small orchid collection, and beading (one hobby that has grown and grown!) I had a busy time at work, and less time for leisure at home. I enjoyed a barbecue whenever we could, and for many years I kept a small aviary of budgerigars. Just after I arrived in the Philippines I adopted a Siamese cat, Pusa, who finally succumbed to the ripe old age of 20 in 1998, when we acquired another Siamese, Tara. I wrote about our feline companions in this post.

But one thing Steph and I shared in common, though not to the same degree in one respect, was our love of the beach and sea. Before moving to the Philippines, I had never even snorkeled. That all changed in February 1992 when we made our first (and only) visit to Puerto Galera on the island of Mindoro. Shortly afterwards, Hannah learned to scuba dive, and I followed a year later in 1993 eventually completing more than 360 dives, all at Anilao south of Los Baños. Philippa learned a few years later when she was old enough (you had to be 13), but Steph never did take to scuba diving, being content with snorkeling the stretch of beach in front of our favorite beach resort, Arthur’s Place.

Road travel in the Philippines was always a bit of a nightmare. Inadequate roads, too many vehicles, and not enough road discipline, especially among the jeepney and tricycle drivers.

The drive to Manila could take a couple of hours, often more, and it wasn’t until just before we left the Philippines in 2010 that the main highway to Manila, the South Luzon Expressway or SLEX was finally upgraded significantly. Likewise the road connecting SLEX to the south coast where we went to the beach.

Hannah and Philippa attended the International School Manila (ISM) that was, in those days, located in the heart of Makati, the main business district of Manila. The school day started at 07:15 which meant they had to be on the road by 06:00 in those fist years. By the time Philippa graduated from high school in 1999, the buses were leaving for Manila by 04:30, and not returning home until about 16:00 or so (the school day finishing around 14:00). Phil would often go for a swim, have her dinner, and in her final two years at ISM, when she was studying for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB), she would have homework until about midnight. Then she snatched a few hours sleep before heading off early the next morning to school once again. All the children took blankets and pillows on the bus and caught with what sleep they could.

For both Hannah and Philippa these were stressful, but ultimately fulfilling, school years. The system was very different from the English system, the academic side very demanding and competitive, especially the IB curriculum. However, both girls did flourish and the hard work and discipline required to get through saw them in good stead later on in their university careers, with both earning a PhD degree in psychology!

Professionally, my years at IRRI were very rewarding. As Head of GRC, one of my most important responsibilities was to manage the world’s largest and genetically most-diverse collection of rice varieties and wild species (with more than 130,000 different seed samples) in the International Rice Genebank. I had a staff of about 75 researchers and assistants. I learnt a lot about people management. However, my task were made so much easier by having so many dedicated professionals to support me.

After a decade genebanking, I moved to IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), and set up an office to handle the institute’s interactions with its donors and fund-raising. And I remained as DPPC until my retirement in 2010.

Much as I had enjoyed my years with GRC, setting up the DPPC Office with hand-picked staff was very rewarding. I had a great team: Corinta, Zeny, Sol, Yeyet, Vhel, and Eric, and they never (well, hardly ever) let me—or IRRI—down.

Christmas 2004 at Antonio’s in Tagaytay. L-R: me, Sol, Eric, Corinta, Vhel, and Zeny.

30 April 2010, and my last day at IRRI. L-R: Eric, Corinta, Zeny, me, Vhel, and Yeyet.

We had such a lot of fun together. There was a lot of laughter in the DPPC Office. We even played badminton together once a week.

But we took our work seriously enough, and helped raise the institute’s annual budget to USD60 million.

In 2009, Steph and I had the opportunity of our first and only long road trip in the Philippines. We always took our annual leave in one block and returned to the UK each summer, so spent little time exploring the Philippines, something I now regret. Anyway, me and my DPPC team decided that we’d take a few days off (with Steph joining us) to visit the world famous (and World Heritage Site) rice terraces in the north of Luzon. That was a fantastic trip, which I wrote about here.

The rice terraces above Banaue.

Enjoying a beer together after a long day in the sun. L-R: Corinta, Zeny, our driver, Vhel, Yeyet, Eric, and me.

At the Batad rice terraces, after a long walk down the mountain. L-R: Yeyet, Steph, Eric, Vhel, and Corinta.


So there we have it: a short trip down memory lane. I have been very fortunate, blessed even, to have worked in three remarkable countries and alongside some of the best professionals I could have hoped for. I have no regrets about making that decision, in early 1973 to move abroad. It has been a fulfilling career in international agricultural research, and I’ve certainly been able to explore this wonderful world of ours, as you will have discovered if you ever perused my blog to any depth.

Morris dancing and genetic resources – an unlikely combination

I was never much good at taking exams. That is, until I studied for my Masters degree in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham in 1970-1971. So how come I improved?

It was exactly 50 years ago, Tuesday 1 June 1971, when I sat the first of four written exams over consecutive days. It was also the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday, the 31st and the last Monday of May. I spent that day—all day, in fact—Morris dancing in Lichfield, a town in south Staffordshire famous for its three-spired medieval cathedral, the ‘city of philosophers’ according one of its famous sons, Samuel, Dr Johnson.

Let me backtrack a few years.

Soon after arriving in Southampton in October 1967 to begin my undergraduate studies at the university, I joined the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society in the Students’ Union, although I’d never danced before. Then, a year later, I co-founded (with Dr Joe Smartt, a genetics lecturer in the Department of Botany) the Red Stags Morris that is still dancing today although no longer associated with the university for many years now.

The Red Stags dancing outside the Arts Faculty in March 1970 at a university Open Day. I’m the second dancer from the left, facing Joe Smartt, with Dudley Savage from the Winchester Morris Men playing the fiddle.

As I described in that earlier post about the Red Stags, we were supported from the outset by the Winchester Morris Men, and during the summer term we would join them when they danced out around the villages and pubs of Hampshire. Such a beautiful county.

Each Late Spring Bank Holiday, the Winchester Morris Men would also organize a Day of Dance, beginning in late morning and lasting well into the evening, and probably visiting half a dozen villages in the process (and their hostelries). The Red Stags joined the 1969 Day of Dance around the New Forest and ending up in Winchester by early evening. By then, we’d developed some dancing skills in the Headington and Adderbury traditions and didn’t embarrass ourselves among much more accomplished dancers. Here is a group of photos taken on that particular Day of Dance, 26 May.

Move on a year. In May 1970, the Late Spring Bank Holiday (25 May) fell on the day before my Final exams were due to start. The weather was glorious, just the sort that was never conducive for exam revision. Joe Smartt encouraged me to take that last day off from revision and join the Morris tour. Peer pressure was too great. I declined, and that’s something I have regretted ever since. Those final few hours of revision didn’t help me one iota, and my exam performance over the next week was only satisfactory to say the least, not the glory I hoped for (but didn’t really expect).

Nevertheless, I was accepted on to the MSc course at Birmingham, and moved there in September 1970, full of anticipation for this new field of plant genetic resources, and looking forward to joining a new Morris side.

There were two choices in Birmingham: Jockey Men’s Morris Club or Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club [1]. I chose the latter. One of the people who’d encouraged me to join the folk dance society at Southampton, Dr Edward Johns, had moved to Birmingham and had joined Green Man a couple of years previously.

I danced with Green Man on a weekly basis for the next two years before I moved to Peru in January 1973. When I returned to the UK in 1981, I rejoined Green Man, and became Squire (club chairman) in 1982 for a year. Unfortunately I developed arthritis in my knees and my doctor discouraged me from from dancing. So, by about 1985 or ’86, my dancing days were over.

That’s me, fourth from the right.

One of Green Man’s traditions, something they did for at least 50 years, was leading the Lichfield Bower Procession (a community event dating back to the 12th century) each Late Spring Bank Holiday. This is a procession around the city, of a couple of miles at the very least. And Green Man would dance the Bower Processional, with arms outstretched and carrying leafy boughs (typically elm in the past) the whole way, but with frequent stops to take refreshment on board.


In 1971, I was again faced with the same dilemma: should I spend the last day before exams doing some last minute revision, or head off and forget my exams fears by enjoying a day of Morris dancing, and my first Lichfield Bower?

Actually, I’d more or less made the decision some months previously. Morris dancing it was. During the MSc course I had upped my game and really learnt how to study more effectively and, more importantly, how to organize myself in preparation for the written exams. Everything went to plan, and by the end of May I felt I’d done all that I could to prepare myself for the coming week of exams. I was ready and primed, so to speak.

So, without any last minute feelings of guilt, just after breakfast I joined my fellow club members traveling to Lichfield, and spent the next twelve or thirteen hours dancing, and consuming not an inconsiderable amount of beer in the process, probably at least twelve pints over the course of the day.

I don’t think I got to bed much before midnight, but then had one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever enjoyed. Not a care in the world, waking up the following morning fully refreshed and relaxed and ready to take on whatever the exam threw at me.

And the outcome? Well it’s plain to see.

During the 1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Birmingham, I gave my own students the same advice: Don’t spend the final day before exams trying to cram last minute information. Take the day off, do something completely different to take your mind of the coming exams. Relax, have a good time, and then have a good night’s sleep.

I know hindsight is a wonderful thing. I just wish I’d taken my own advice back in 1970.


[1] Sadly, in 2017 Green Man’s Morris and Sword Club decided that the side was no longer viable. With ageing members and not recruiting new blood, the club was no longer able to put up a side of six dancers and musician. Thus came to an end 60 or more years of dancers from a club that had provided two Squires of the Morris Ring, John Venables and Ray King. Click here to read a short account of how and why Green Man came to an end.

Life goes on . . . taken too soon

Do you remember the first 45 single or album (LP or CD) that you bought? I bought the single Keep on Running by The Spencer Davis Group in late 1965.

I also remember precisely when and where I bought these albums: Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the White Album by The Beatles. My first CD (in 1991 just before I headed to the Philippines) was Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits, and I’ve been a massive Mac fan ever since. And in the intervening years, I went on to expand my CD collection, although with streaming now available I’ve not added to it for at least a decade.

In my CD collection, several artists or groups are represented by multiple discs: The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits/Mark Knopfler, R.E.M., Eric Clapton, Crowded House, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, to name just a few.

For others, I have maybe a couple of CDs or just a single one. Among these is one artist whose work I have come to relish over the decades, but it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago (through Spotify) did I finally appreciate just what an incredible singer/songwriter he was. I have only two of his ten albums. I don’t know why it took me so long to find out.

I’m referring to Gerry Rafferty (1947-2011). So, how and when did I first encounter this brilliant musician?

It was late 1978. I was living in Costa Rica, and had just returned from home leave in the UK. During that leave, my brother-in-law Derek recorded a tape for me, Rafferty’s City to City (his second solo album) released earlier that year. However, I didn’t have a tape deck because we’d had a burglary during our home leave, and my hi-fi had been stolen.

Discovering City to City had to wait until a few weeks later when I was in San José (the capital city) to take delivery of a new car, and have a stereo system installed, including a tape deck.

Ready for the return journey to Turrialba where we lived (about 70 km east of San José, and at least a couple of hours on the road) I eagerly anticipated listening to City to City, and was instantly enthralled by the first track, The Ark, enjoying the blend throughout the album of folk and soft rock. The Ark has remained a favorite of mine all these years.

But ask anyone to name any Gerry Rafferty song, and I’m pretty sure that Baker Street (with its iconic saxophone riff [1] by Raphael Ravenscroft) would be top of their list. It quickly rose in the charts. Rafferty always surrounded himself with so many accomplished musicians.

The title track from the album is pretty damn good as well, inspired by Rafferty’s long-distance commuting apparently.

The fifth track on City to City is particularly poignant. My late elder brother Ed (who lived in Canada) was also a Gerry Rafferty fan. When his wife Linda passed away after a battle with cancer in 2007, Ed chose Stealin’ Time as one of the pieces of music played at her funeral. A poignant tribute to a lovely lady.

A year after City to City, Rafferty released Night Owl in 1979. The title track is my favorite with Already Gone coming a close second.

So, what about all the other wonderful music that I’d not been exposed to? Well, working through that first Spotify playlist of so many great songs, two in particular caught my ear. The first, Don’t Give Up On Me was the seventh track on his seventh studio album, On a Wing & a Prayer released in 1992.

And the other, which I believe is one of Rafferty’s finest (and ‘undiscovered’) songs is Tired of Talking, released as the third track on his sixth studio album, North and South, in 1988.

This track, Don’t Speak of My Heart, is the third track from Rafferty’s tenth and final album, Life Goes On, released in November 2009. An alcoholic for much of his life, Rafferty died of liver failure in January 2011. Taken too soon, at just 63.

For an even greater appreciation of the genius of Gerry Rafferty, watch this hour long documentary broadcast by BBC Scotland in 2011. Maybe even shed a tear . . .


[1] The saxophone break on “Baker Street” has been described as “the most famous saxophone solo of all time”, “the most recognizable sax riff in pop music history”, and “one of the most recognisable saxophone solos of all time”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Getting the message out about genetic resources

For much of my career, I have taken a keen interest in science communication. Such that, a couple of years after I’d become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning & Coordination in 2001, I was asked to take on line management responsibility for several of IRRI’s administrative units, including the Communication and Publications Services (CPS) headed by my good friend Gene Hettel. My job changed to some degree, as did my title: Director for Program Planning & Communications.

I’ve always felt that scientists have a responsibility to explain their work to the general public in plain language. We’re fortunate here in the UK; there are several leading lights in this respect who have made their mark in the media and now represent, to a considerable extent, ‘the face of science’ nationally. None of them is shy about speaking out on matters of concern to society at large.

Sir David Attenborough (far left, above) is one of the world’s leading advocates for biodiversity conservation who also eloquently explains the threat and challenges of climate change. Professors Alice Roberts (second left, of The University of Birmingham) and Brian Cox (second right, The University of Manchester) have both made their mark in TV broadcasts in recent years, bringing fascinating programs covering a range of topics to the small screen. And then again, there’s Sir Paul Nurse (far right), Director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and former President of the Royal Society. I was particularly impressed with his Richard Dimbleby Lecture, The New Enlightenment, on the BBC in 2012 about his passion for science. It’s well worth a watch.


I would never claim to be in the same league as these illustrious scientists. However, over the years I have tried—in my small way—to raise awareness of the science area with which I am most familiar: plant genetic resources and their conservation. And in this blog, I have written extensively about some of my work on potatoes at the International Potato Center in Peru and on rice at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, as well as training genetic resources scientists at the University of Birmingham.

So, when I was approached a few weeks ago to be interviewed and contribute to a podcast series, Plant Breeding Stories, I jumped at the chance.

The podcasts are hosted by Hannah Senior, Managing Director of PBS International, a world leading company in pollination control. So far, there have been eleven podcasts in two series, with mine broadcast for the first time just a couple of days ago. In this clip, Hannah explains the rationale for the series.

Just click on the image below to listen to our 35 minute conversation about genetic resources, genebanks, and their importance for plant breeding and food security. Oh, and a little about me and how I got into genetic resources work in the first place.

I hope you find the podcast interesting, and even a little bit enlightening. A transcript of the broadcast can be downloaded here. Thanks for listening.


Every table tells a tale . . .

After my mother went into a care home in 1990, my eldest brother Martin, my sister Margaret, and I were faced with the task of vacating her rented bungalow, and deciding what furniture to keep and what to dispose of.

I took two pieces of furniture that I can remember from my childhood in Congleton, and I’m 72: one was my father’s Art Deco tallboy; and the other, a half moon table, the end section of a long dining table. I still have both.

The table graced our hall in Bromsgrove for many years. It now proudly sits in the bow window of our new home in Newcastle. It’s a little bit battered perhaps, the veneer and polish has come away in a few places, but still it retains a certain majesty.

I can’t state unequivocally where the table originated. But family tradition has it that the table was once the end section of a dining table on board one of the Cunard-White Star Line ocean liners. But which one?

As ship’s photographer, my father Fred Jackson spent a number of years on board two ships: the four-funneled RMS Aquitania and the RMS Carinthia. In the memoir [1] that Dad completed just a week or so before he passed away in April 1980, he mentioned his affection for the Aquitania:

Of all the ships that I was called to serve on, without doubt the Aquitania was the one that I held dearest in my affections, especially as one event in that first summer of 1934 was to shape the remainder of my life in no uncertain way. The “Aqui”, with the exception of two short breaks, was to be my floating home and the source of my livelihood for the next four years . . . 

Dad made 98 crossings of the North Atlantic between Southampton and New York. The 1930s were the heyday of ocean travel, and countries vied with each other to provide the most comfortable, luxurious, and fastest crossings. The Aquitania was, until the launch of RMS Queen Mary [2] in 1934 and entering into service two years later, the largest of the Cunard-White Star liners on this route.

How exactly my parents took possession of the table in the first place I have no idea. Did it come from the Aquitania after she was scrapped in 1950? Perhaps, given my Dad’s affinity for the ship. But as I was researching this story earlier today, an idea popped up in my mind. The table didn’t come from the Aquitania after all, but the RMS Majestic [3]. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I have an idea that this was the ship that my mother once mentioned to me.

In some respects it really doesn’t matter. The table is a symbol of era gone by, and part of the story of how my parents first met.

So let’s go back to that summer of 1934 and Dad’s early voyages on the Aquitania. On one return crossing from New York to Southampton, three young women asked Dad to take their photograph. One of them, Lily May Healy (on the left; she was always known as ‘Lilian’), just 26, had trained as a nurse in Newark, New Jersey and was returning to England to visit her parents.

Docking in Southampton, Dad took a photo of Lilian with her parents, Martin and Ellen Healy who came on board. Dad also managed to get Lilian’s contact details in the US so that he might look her up the next time he was in New York once she had returned from holiday.

Dad proposed to Lilian in Newark, and they returned together in 1936 on the Aquitania, and were married in Epsom in November that year.

Before leaving New York, Mum and Dad visited the SS Normandie, the pride of France, launched in 1935 and replacing the Aquitania as the largest and fastest ocean liner.

Purchasing her return passage at the Cunard office in New York, Mum’s ticket was upgraded to a single cabin on Deck ‘C’. And from the photos that Dad took during that voyage, it looks as though she thoroughly enjoyed herself.

Here’s a photo of Mum and Dad sitting together, second row, second and third from the right.

I have another photo of Mum alongside my Dad’s parents, Tom and Alice Jackson. Obviously taken on board ship, presumably the Aquitania after docking in Southampton, I wonder if my  grandparents had traveled to Southampton especially to meet and welcome their future daughter-in-law.

It’s remarkable what memories just one piece of furniture can awake. And each day as I see that table, I also think what it could tell us if only it could speak. The 1930s were certainly an opulent time on the high seas.

It was decade when celebrities traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, and Dad had a remarkable set of photos of Hollywood stars that you can see in this post. His favorite was Bette Davis, who signed the photo he took.

And on one last note, here is a remarkable, perhaps unique photo. From the caption that my Dad has written, here are passengers on the RMS Aquitania listening to a radio broadcast while at sea of the launch of the RMS Queen Mary on 26 September 1934.


[1] Fred Jackson, 1980. Gathering No Moss.

[2] I wrote about the last voyage of the Queen Mary from Southampton in this post.

[3] RMS Majestic had been built and launched (in 1914) in Germany as the SS Bismarck. After World War I, she was handed over to the allies as war reparations and renamed Majestic. She sailed just once under the German flag during sea trials in 1922.

Nothing comes for free . . .

Ask almost any scientist, and the one thing they (mostly) have in common is their dislike (I could put it stronger) of having to write reports or to be held to deadlines.

Many would prefer never to be reminded they have reporting commitments, and just bury their heads in the academic sand. Just yesterday, I came across a twitter thread started by an academic deploring the lack of support from her institute in terms of reporting and, for her, making the whole process unacceptably complicated.

Reports come in many guises: progress reports to supervisors or project leaders, to their institutions, and perhaps most importantly, to the body that provided funds for their research project.

So having labored for hours, days, weeks or longer to prepare a proposal for submission to a funding body, and having that agonizing wait until the project is actually approved for funding, research scientists then have to prepare reports periodically on progress, and how the funding has actually been spent. Nevertheless, it’s important that scientists appreciate that they do have a responsibility, commitment even, to account for their projects and funding, even though many see this as an unacceptable chore taking them away from valuable research time and writing scientific papers, rather than just another component of the project implementation.

Now, if you work for one of the international agricultural research institute sponsored by the CGIAR [1], like I did for about 27 years in South and Central America (on potatoes at the International Potato Center or CIP) and in the Philippines (on rice at the International Rice Research Institute or IRRI), report writing came with the territory, so to speak. But the demands for reports have changed over the decades since I first became involved in 1973.

Back in the day, there were no electronic communications to permit instantaneous delivery of research reports. For example, when I worked for CIP in Costa Rica from 1976 to 1980, I had to submit quarterly reports to headquarters in Lima. These were sent in the mail, taking two to three weeks to reach their destination. That was accepted practice.

Not today, however. Some donors have become increasingly dysfunctional, with constant demands for information. Now! Because reports can be submitted as email attachments, requests are often posted at the last minute, without ever appreciating that to provide the necessary information might take hours, even days, to compile.

That’s not to say that responding to such requests with some urgency is unnecessary. But to compile and analyse information into a coherent report takes time. And for many scientists, time is of the essence.


When it comes to international agricultural research, the ultimate donors are tax payers, and governments have to satisfy that their investment is used appropriately and, more importantly, delivers the expected outcomes. I’ve written about those aspects in another blog post a few years back.

And, in the case of the CGIAR centers, that means having a positive impact of the welfare and livelihoods of farming families around the world, and those who depend on their agricultural productivity to survive, especially urban populations in cities and mega-cities who do not produce their own food. Take the case of rice, for example. Half the world’s population—several billion people—eats rice at least once a day, over a million tons a day worldwide, maybe more. That’s . And rice farmers must maintain their productivity, increase it even, if the demand for this staple crop is met. So it’s important to use the diversity in genebank collections to breed new varieties, or to fight pests and diseases. Then again, supply constraints must be understood if farmers are to be empowered to sell their rice, or what prevents women farmers in particular from improving their livelihoods.


In 2001, I gave up day-to-day science to join IRRI’s senior management team, as Director for Program Planning and Communications with the brief (and mandate) to beef up the institute’s management of its many research projects, to liaise with its donor community, and increase donor support for IRRI’s overall research agenda. It would be no exaggeration to state that when we set up the Program Planning and Communications office, IRRI’s relations with its donor had almost hit rock bottom.

The PPC Team on my last day at IRRI on 30 April 2010. L-R: Eric Clutario, Zeny Federico, Corinta Guerta, me, Vel Hernandez-Ilao, Yeyet Enriquez.

For one thing, senior management had no clear picture of how many research projects were currently being funded, nor what commitments had been made to the respective donors. Indeed, things were so bad that some donors had threatened to pause existing funding support and not even consider new initiatives until the institute got its house in order.

Ron Cantrell

The Director General, Ron Cantrell, asked me to sort this deplorable situation and do whatever necessary to retrieve our standing with the donors. I can’t say that my efforts were universally welcomed by my colleagues at the outset. They had grown accustomed to not being held to account. But eventually they came to appreciate the value of having a support office like PPC.

First things first. It took a week to come up with a first but incomplete list of all donor-funded projects. The next step was to make sure we could identify each one uniquely. And like assigning an accession number to a sample of germplasm in a genebank, each project was given its own identity (DPPC-year-number), notwithstanding that each donor might also have assigned an ID according to their own project management. Even at the project concept stage, we assigned a DPPC number that remained with the project funded or not. We never re-assigned a DPPC number to another project. Eventually, as we built our project management system, we linked all the projects with the institute’s finance systems. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Whereas IRRI was probably behind in its reporting on more than 75% of its projects when I set up the Program Planning & Communications Office in May 2001, we had recovered to less than 10% six months later. And, having worked with the donors by explaining what we were doing, they were very supportive. However, having made good progress in terms of improvement our relationship with donors, there were always a couple of prima donnas at IRRI who wouldn’t play ball, didn’t feel that any project management regime was their concern, and despite our best efforts rarely complied on time with requests for information and reporting. To the overall detriment of the institute, it has to be said. Having these scientists write a report was akin to getting blood from a stone.

Once we had a handle on the scope of IRRI’s projects, we set about establishing some standard operating procedures (SOP) to develop project ideas, to submit projects to donors, and to provide IRRI’s scientists with the appropriate support to meet donor expectations. We set up reporting schedules for each project, so that no scientist could claim they hadn’t realized a report was due, assisted scientists to finalize their reports in terms of donor formats, and editing, submitting reports on behalf of the institute and taking care of any follow up. One of the complexities we had to face were the different reporting formats and requirements that each donor adopted. But with support from my colleague Gene Hettel and his team (especially science editor Bill Hardy) in Communication and Publications Services (CPS) we always submitted quality reports easily recognizable as coming from IRRI.

The CPS Team in 2008. Gene Hettel (head of CPS) is second from the left, front row. Bill Hardy (scientific editor) is kneeling (right behind Gene), to my right.

Reporting became just another component of any successfully-managed project, not an undesirable add-on seen by scientists as an imposition on their freedom and time. But the type of reports needed by donors were not the same as writing a scientific paper for example, and we had to unlearn many scientists from their usual publication habits. Donors are interested in progress and need sufficient technical information to establish scientific credibility. They don’t want to be swamped by technical jargon that too many scientists rely on. The information needed to be accessible to a non-technical readership, and that’s how the PPC team helped out, supported by our CPS colleagues.

Donors do not like surprises, so I ensured that my office maintained good communications with the many donor offices around the world, by email, by telephone, and making personal visits at least once a year. Establishing that personal relationship with my donor counterparts was an important aspect of my job as Director for Program Planning & Communications. If a project encountered a problem, or we expected a report to be delayed, or anticipated a project overrun, we talked with our donors from the outset, not leaving things until after the fact, so to speak.

Project implementation and management is a two way affair. Once made, donors should honor their commitments. And one donor, the UK government, has palpably failed in this respect regarding overseas aid (from which the CGIAR centers are funded), reducing its statutory commitment of 0.7% of gross national income (or GNI) to 0.5% for the foreseeable future, in response to the financial crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The UK gave its support through the Department for International Development (DFID) that has now merged with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to form the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. Overseas aid no longer has its own profile, much to the detriment of the program, and because of the reduction in aid commitment, a significant number of projects worldwide (not just CGIAR) that relied on British aid have been cut and even staff made redundant. This is an appalling situation, and although I don’t have to hand how this aid commitment has affected the CGIAR centers, I’m sure there will be a negative budgetary consequence.

So, while the donors require (demand even) accountability for the funds they allocate, I believe it is equally important that donors like the British government maintain their financial commitments, and behave responsibly.


[1] CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food secure future dedicated to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security, and improving natural resources.

Walking with my mobile – northeast (1)

During 2019, I started a series of posts, Walking with my mobile, in which I described some of the walks that I used to take around my hometown of Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, just south of Birmingham.

At the end of September last year we moved from Bromsgrove to the northeast of England, a few miles east of Newcastle upon Tyne city center. And over the past seven months I have been exploring many different walks close to where we live in North Tyneside, and a little further east on the awesome coast, just over 10 minutes drive away at Seaton Sluice, over the county line in Northumberland. Close by also stands Seaton Delaval Hall, the closest National Trust property to home.

I already described some of the places we’ve been to in a post last November. But now I want to document in some more detail the walks that have become part of my (almost) daily routine.


Having never lived near the coast (Steph grew up in Southend on Sea in Essex and the beach was just a five minute walk from the family home), it’s a never-ending delight for me to jump in the car and know that within a short space of time, I’ll be walking along the wide open spaces of a Northumberland beach, and breathing in all that wonderful clean sea air. Even though it can be quite challenging when there’s a stiff northeast breeze coming down from the Arctic.

Last Sunday morning, being a bright sunny day (but with gales and heavy rain in the forecast over the next couple of days or so), we headed to Seaton Sluice. For walks along the beach here, there are three parking options. Close to the harbor in Seaton Sluice itself there’s a car park (and toilet block) that probably takes around 80 vehicles at most. Given its location, you have to be an early bird to secure a parking space here. We didn’t leave home until after 11 am.

Further north along the A193 towards Blyth is a second car park, the Seaton Sluice Beach car park. It’s enormous, stretching probably more than a quarter of a mile north and south of the entrance, where there’s also a disused toilet block. This is where we parked to begin our short walk of just over two miles.

And on the southern edge of Blyth itself, behind Blyth beach, the beach huts, and the remains of the Blyth Battery (see more below), is another car park that we have yet to use.

The car parks lie behind sand dunes that stretch from Seaton Sluice to Blyth beach. Criss-crossed by many paths there are some main ones for easy access to the beach itself, and for equestrians who we see galloping along the beach from time to time.

And what a glorious view opens up as you emerge from the dunes: Seaton Sluice harbor and headland to the south, and Blyth beach and port to the north.

Immediately offshore, and about half a mile from the beach, is a small five-turbine demonstrator wind farm, operated by the French multinational EDF.

Heading along the beach, we always find it easier to make our way closer to the breaking waves, where the sand is usually firmer. Walking on the soft sand through the dunes and at the top of the beach is such hard work.

Further north along the beach and turning to look south, St Mary’s Lighthouse close to Whitley Bay comes into view, and beyond that, the entrance to the River Tyne at Tynemouth. That’s not actually visible from Seaton Sluice beach, but often there are large ships anchored just offshore waiting for the tide to enable them to enter the river and head upstream. As you can see from the image below, Seaton Sluice beach is also very popular with dog walkers.

About half way between Seaton Sluice car park and Blyth beach a stream flows on to the beach from under the dunes, necessitating a change of direction to join the paved path, known as the Eve Black Way [1] which connects Seaton Sluice and Blyth. It’s either get your feet wet, or find another route.

Joining the Eve Black Way we continued north until we reached the south end of Blyth beach, and stopped for a few minutes to examine the replica battery guns [2] that were unveiled in April 2019, as well as enjoy the view south.

Along the path, about halfway between Blyth and our car park, there’s an interesting sculpture, in wood, dedicated to cycling (the Eve Black Way carries part of the National Cycle Network route 1—Coast and Castles route—that is also part of the European Cycle Network North Sea route.

Then, another ten minutes and we were back at the car park.

Happy days!


Along the beach itself, we haven’t seen too much bird life, just the normal herring and black-headed gulls, the occasional sanderling running along the water’s edge. Around Seaton Sluice itself we have seen turnstones, oystercatchers, and redshanks as well, and small flocks of common eiders (or cuddy ducks, named after St Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumberland) bobbing on the waves just offshore. At this time of the year, the dunes are busy with birds: meadow pipits, linnets, and warblers of various species (I’m not very good at identifying small olive brown birds). We’ve seen the odd kestrel hovering above the dunes, hunting its prey of small mammals.

But one of the most spectacular wildlife displays came a few months back in the depths of winter. We’d taken much the same walk, but when we arrived back at the car park, there was a flock of perhaps 150 pink-footed geese grazing in a field across the A193, interspersed with perhaps as many as 50 curlew. What a sight!

However, we enjoyed one of the most memorable sights on our first walk at Seaton Sluice last October, about a week after we had moved north. A couple walking along the beach drew our attention to it: a lone grey seal, constantly diving and returning to the surface over a period of about 15 minutes, hunting for its breakfast.

Given the proximity of Seaton Sluice beach to home (as well as the cliff walk to St Mary’s Lighthouse, as well as Whitley Bay beach itself), I’m sure that this walk will continue to be one of the most frequent we make. After all, within about two minutes from home we can see the sea.


[1] Evelyn Ann Black was a much-loved Labour Councillor and Mayor of Blyth Valley in 1980-81. She died in 2006. In 2007, the path between Blyth and Seaton Sluice was renamed the Eve Black Coastal Walkway.

[2] The guns are replica Mark VII 6″naval guns virtually the same as would have been there during World War Two. They were 23′ long and had a range of 7 miles.


 

Almost as rare as hen’s teeth . . .

For about a two week period each Spring, around the end of April, The Alnwick Garden comes alive with an abundance of Japanese cherry blossoms, just as the rest of the garden is beginning to emerge from its winter slumber. We made a return visit there last Thursday only a week after we had been there, which I wrote about at the time. We noted then that the orchard was about to bloom, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see this wonder of Nature.

In 2008, this orchard of more than 320 great white cherry trees (Prunus ‘Taihaku’) was planted in the east-southeast section of the garden. Now 20 feet tall or more, words are insufficient to describe the wonder of this cherry orchard in full bloom.

The orchard is touted as the largest in the world of ‘Taihaku’ cherries. And this particular variety has an interesting history linking Japan, an Englishman, and a Sussex garden.

Cherry trees are central to Japanese culture, but tastes in different varieties have changed over the centuries. ‘Taihaku’ cherries apparently went extinct in Japan in the late 19th century. Move on a few decades, and up steps a very interesting Englishman, Captain Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981) who, after an early career interest in ornithology, became one of the world’s authorities on cherries. Indeed he was often referred to as ‘Cherry’ Ingram, a colossus, introducing many different Prunus species and varieties to the UK.

And it was through his passion for cherries that, in the 1920s, he came across a single, rather decrepit tree of Prunus ‘Taihaku’ in a Sussex garden. He successfully took cuttings, returning some to Japan. The trees at Alnwick (and indeed all ‘Taihaku’ trees worldwide) derive from that single Sussex tree.

In 2016, Japanese author Naoko Abe published an account about Ingram’s contribution to the survival of Japanese cherries. Here is a 2019 review of that book published by the Irish Garden Plant Society.

Abe herself also wrote an article for the Literary Hub, which is well worth the time to delve into. It gives some interesting background about Japanese cherry culture, why varieties became extinct, and of course, how Ingram turned this situation around.


Since all ‘Taihaku’ trees are derived from a single individual following vegetative propagation, there is zero genetic diversity worldwide for this variety. It’s an extreme example of genetic vulnerability, but that’s not a situation unique to Prunus ‘Taihaku’. The danger is that a pest or disease may emerge to which the trees have limited or no resistance, and there are no opportunities for selection of genetically-different individuals that might withstand such challenges.

Another example is the potato in Ireland. During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s which decimated the Irish population, potato crops (predominantly of the variety ‘Irish Lumper’ or ‘Lumper’) were wiped out by the late bight pathogen Phytophthora infestans, all plants equally susceptible to the disease. Unfortunately there are too many examples of crops with a narrow genetic base that are under threat.

Let’s look at the situation in rice, a crop I am familiar with. It’s the world’s most important staple crop, providing sustenance daily (and indeed often several times a day) to half the world’s population. Since time immemorial farmers have cultivated tens of thousands of varieties. But over the past half century, new varieties such as IR36 and IR72 (from the breeding program at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, in the Philippines where I worked from 1991-2010) have been adopted across across millions of hectares in Asia, replacing many of those farmer varieties, and effectively becoming genetic monocultures.

In the world of genetic resources conservation, which was the focus of much of my professional life over many decades, scientists are continually concerned about losing different varieties, and genetic diversity overall. However, this loss of diversity, or genetic erosion as it’s known, has been occurring forever, as farmers swap varieties and adopt new ones, the sorts of choices that farmers make all the time. There’s nothing strange or concerning about that as such.

Let me elaborate with an example from the Philippines. In the mid-1990s, a major typhoon swept across the north of the main island of Luzon, destroying in its path much of the local rice agriculture. Since we had been carrying out fieldwork in that region prior to the typhoon and, with permission from the farmers, taken small samples of their varieties for genetic analysis, we were able (after seed increase at IRRI) to return to farmers the varieties they had been growing before the catastrophe. Some willingly took them back. Others decided that this was an opportunity to make changes to their farming systems and adopt new varieties. But that was their choice, not ours (Pham et al., 2002).

Varieties may be lost, but is the actual genetic diversity itself totally lost? We have some evidence from rice (Ford-Lloyd et al., 2008) that’s not the case:

. . . where germplasm and genetic data have been collected throughout South and Southeast Asia over many decades, contrary to popular opinion, we have been unable to detect a significant reduction of available genetic diversity in our study material. This absence of a decline may be viewed positively; over the 33-year timescale of our study, genetic diversity amongst landraces grown in traditional agricultural systems was still sufficiently abundant to be collected for ex situ conservation.

However, the authors go on to raise concerns about future threats to diversity caused by climate changes or different agricultural practices. While landrace varieties are grown they can continue to adapt to environmental changes.

Overall, however, with thousands of different varieties of rice (and a multitude of other crops and their wild relatives) safely conserved in genebanks around the world, genetic diversity has not been lost. It’s available to dip into by breeders who incorporate traits from the landraces into new varieties (just look at the example of IR72 below that has 22 landrace varieties and one wild species in its pedigree), or as we showed in the Philippines example above, returned to farmers so they can continue to benefit in different ways from these old varieties.

Just recently I’ve been involved in an online discussion among old friends and colleagues about the loss of genetic diversity over the decades, and how much has actually been lost. As Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in our 1986 introduction to genetic conservation:

Hard facts relating to genetic erosion are not easy to come by; what has been lost already can no longer be accounted. One therefore has to resort mainly to personal impressions and subjective accounts.

What is important is that over the past half century, efforts have been stepped up to safely conserve old varieties and wild species in a network of genebanks across the globe. And, in recent years, that effort has been backstopped financially and technically by the Crop Trust with grants in perpetuity to major world genebanks (such as those managed by eleven CGIAR centers) and the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the permafrost high above the Arctic Circle.

However, even as these initiatives gain traction and deliver on their promises, we cannot remain complacent. Situations such as the ‘Taihaku’ cherry will continue to emerge (although perhaps not so extreme), and crops, wild species—and rare breed animals—will remain under threat. With habitat loss, and the threat of climate change that is gaining pace, never has genetic conservation (and use) been so important. ‘Taihaku’ can teach us a lesson if we take our eye off the ball.


 

Never get lost: numbers or just three words?

I seem to have stirred up a bit of a geospatial controversy among family members. Nothing too serious, I hasten to add. Just a question of numbers or words. It’s all about finding your place in this world. Literally!

For as long as humans have been exploring this glorious world of ours, they have been drawing maps of one sort or another to enable others to travel safely and understand better the relationship and location of natural and man-made features in the landscape.

This Babylonian world map, known as the Imago Mundi, is (so I’m led to believe) the earliest known map, over 2600 years old.

This quotation, from film maker Peter Greenaway, perfectly sums up my decades-long interest in maps: ‘I’ve always been fascinated by maps and cartography. A map tells you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going — in a sense it’s three tenses in one.’

And it never ceases to amaze me just how early on map makers were producing realistic maps of the world, centuries before satellite and space imagery showed us the world in the round. Here’s a map of the world, engraved in 1595 by the son of Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594)—the man who (according to Nicholas Crane) mapped the planet.

The 18th century was an era when expeditions, many commissioned by the British Admiralty, were sent all over the world to explore and map distant lands.

As a small boy, I used to spend hours pouring over maps, especially the map of South America. It then became my ambition to visit that enigmatic continent one day. An ambition fulfilled in the 1970s.

Maps have also been an important part of my work as a research botanist. I’ve had a special interest in the geographical variation displayed by plant species, visualizing the data on maps to better understand how variation patterns correlate with geography and ecology.

The two maps below are taken from a paper by a graduate student of mine, Javier Francisco-Ortega, who undertook a study of an endemic legume species, Chamaecytisus proliferus (commonly known as tagasaste or escobon) from his native Canary Islands. Using these hand-drawn maps, based on actual Global Positioning System (GPS) location data recorded in the field, and adding symbols to represent slightly different morphologies, Javier was able to characterize how the species varied according to ecology across the archipelago, and published his findings in this paper.

Even this was a leap forward from when I completed my PhD in 1975. I had studied a particular type of potato from Peru and had collected some of these myself during three collecting missions in 1973 and 1974. Others I had selected from the large collection of native varieties that were being carefully conserved at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. There was no GPS in those days, and we struggled even to source accurate maps, the only ones available (with some difficulty) from the Peruvian military geographical institute (now the Instituto Geográfico Nacional). So it was sometimes difficult to accurately pinpoint where any variety had been collected, and even more so retroactively for varieties already collected. Often it was a case of describing the collection site or farmer’s field as ‘along road such and such from X to Y, W meters north of Z feature in the landscape‘.

Few countries have a mapped landscape as accurate and comprehensive as the United Kingdom, published by the Ordnance Survey that commenced its work in 1791 (although military mapping had already been ongoing for the previous four decades).

Lack of accurate geographical data bedevils the efficient collection, conservation, and use of genetic resources of crops and their wild relatives. It is not uncommon for collecting data to be wildly inaccurate. Transcribing coordinates derived from a map (where they are available) can place a collecting site miles from its actual location. Even in the middle of the ocean!

Using precise location data, a Geographical Information System (or GIS) can link all manner of information and has revolutionized just how we look at the landscape around us, to make maps that communicate, perform analysis, share information, and solve complex problems around the world.

So what was the controversy I referred to at the outset. Recently, I have been posting on Facebook a series of photographs taken at different locations around the world, and challenging those in my circle of friends to guess where. The next day I publish the location, and have taken to using location data from the what3words (or w3w) app that divides the globe into 3x3m squares and generates three random words to describe each square (taking care to screen out any ‘rude’ ones). It works in multiple languages. The reference I give represents where (approximately) I took the photo, or maybe is slap bang in the middle of the feature I’m illustrating.

Much to the exasperation of my nephew Bruce, a GIS professional, who slated w3w as ‘the bane of the geospatial community’. He had responded after I’d posted this lovely photo of the Aqueduto do Convento de Cristo – Troço Pegões Altos, in central Portugal near where his father (and my eldest brother) resides.

And giving it the w3w coordinates of:  ///mischievous.wands.reassign

Bruce  replied with these coordinates: 39.6081716, -8.4421573 (which is approximately 39º36’29.4″N 8º26’31″W, according to Google Maps).

As Bruce further commented, ‘There’s a lot of interest in What 3 Words at the moment’. But he went to tell me that he and others in his profession were sceptical about the service, particularly the claims that it could be a life saver in emergency situations. And then he explained a couple of things that I wasn’t aware of. And, I suspect, the same applies to the majority of phone users:

  • First, it’s not necessary to to install any third party apps on your phone, remember words or anything. The location is defined by the phone’s GPS, and by just going to your preferred mapping app such as Google Maps and sharing your location.
  • Second, blue light/emergency services don’t need to adopt another proprietary app at all, and it’s just causing more overheads and complications for them.

Bruce attached a link to an opinion piece about the shortcomings of w3w by GIS guru Steve Feldman in his blog. You can read it here.

Notwithstanding the actual lack of necessity for an app like w3w (I take all that on board), and the concern among GIS professionals questioning the aims of w3w, I do think it has a value. If it raises an interest in locational information, a greater awareness of the world around us among the majority who are GPS/GIS illiterate, then that’s surely a good thing. From my many decades in science research and communications, there’s one thing I have learned. And that is to make science accessible to everyone, not just those working in the field. What w3w does, in a fun way, is bring geospatial information to Joe Public.

There’s also another reason why I’ll continue to use w3w in a limited way. Given that I can hardly remember what I had for dinner last night, trying to remember or repeat a string of numbers, positive and negative location coordinates, is quite a challenge. I have a much easier time with words, and three seems quite a handy number.

So to conclude, here is a location that is a particularly significant to me: ///loose.noises.dream. Clue: 18 November 1948.


 

I never aspired to be an academic

If, in the summer of 1970, someone had told me that one day I would be teaching botany at university, I would have told them they were delusional. But that’s what happened in April 1981 when I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham. Hard to believe that’s already 40 years ago today. I stayed at Birmingham for a decade.

Birmingham is a campus university, one of the first, and also the first of the so-called ‘redbrick‘ universities. The campus has changed radically in the 30 years since I left, but many of the same landmarks are still there. The beauty of the campus can be appreciated in this promotional video.


I never, ever had any pretensions to a life in academia. As an undergraduate studying for a combined degree in Environmental Botany and Geography at University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970, I was a run-of-the-mill student. It wasn’t that I had little enthusiasm for my degree. Quite the contrary, for the most part. I enjoyed my three years at university, but I did burn the candle more at one end than the other. Also, I didn’t really know (or understand) how to study effectively, and no-one mentored me to become better. And it showed in my exam results. So while I graduated with a BSc (Hons.) degree, it was only a Lower Second; I just missed out, by a couple of percentage points, on an Upper or 2(i) degree. Perhaps with a little more effort I could have achieved that goal of a ‘better degree’. Que será . . .

However, about halfway through my final year at Southampton, I applied to Birmingham for a place on the recently-established graduate MSc course on Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR) in the Department of Botany. And the rest is history, so to speak.

I was interviewed in February 1970 and offered a place, but with no guarantee of funding. It wasn’t until late in the summer—about a couple of weeks before classes commenced—that the head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes phoned me to confirm my place (notwithstanding my ‘poor’ degree) and that he’d managed to squeeze a small grant from the university. It was just sufficient to pay my academic fees, and provide an allowance of around £5 per week (about £67 at today’s value) towards my living expenses.

So, in early September 1970 I found myself in Birmingham alongside four other MSc candidates, all older than me, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and Venezuela, excited to learn all about plant genetic resources. I discovered my study mojo, redeeming myself academically (rather well, in fact), sufficient for Jack Hawkes to take me on as one of his PhD students, even as I was expecting to move to Peru to join the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. And that’s what I did for the rest of the decade, working in South and Central America before returning to Birmingham as a member of staff.


The years before Birmingham
I spent over eight years with CIP, between January 1973 and April 1976, working as an Associate Taxonomist in Lima, and helping to manage the multitude of potato varieties in the center’s field genebank, participating in collecting trips to different parts of Peru to find new varieties not already conserved in the genebank, and continuing research towards my PhD.

In the meantime, my girlfriend Stephanie (who I met at Birmingham) and I decided to get married, and she flew out to Peru in July 1973. We were married in Lima in October [1].

In May 1975, Steph and I returned to Birmingham for six months so I could complete the residency requirements for my PhD, and to write and defend my thesis. We returned to Lima by the end of December just after I received my degree.

From April 1976 and November 1980, Steph and I lived in Costa Rica in Central America on the campus of the regional agricultural research center, CATIE, in Turrialba, a small town 62 km due east of the capital, San José.

I had joined CIP’s Regional Research Department to strengthen the regional program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In 1976, the regional headquarters were in Toluca, Mexico where my head of program, Oscar Hidalgo lived. After he moved to the USA for graduate studies in 1977, CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, asked me to take on the leadership of the regional program, and that’s what I did for the next four years, with an emphasis on breeding potatoes adapted to hot tropical environments, seed systems, bacterial disease resistance, and regional program development.

By November 1980 I felt it was time to move on, and requested CIP to assign me to another program. We moved back to Lima. However, with one eye on life beyond CIP, and with a growing daughter, Hannah (born in April 1978, and who would, in the next couple of years, be starting school) I also began to look for employment opportunities in the UK.


Looking for new opportunities
Towards the end of 1980 (but before we had returned to Lima) I became aware that a new lectureship was about to be advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany, my alma mater) at Birmingham. With the retirement of Jack Hawkes scheduled for September 1982, the lectureship would be recruited to fill an anticipated gap in teaching on the CUPGR Course.

I sent in an application and waited ‘patiently’ (patience is not one of my virtues) for a reply to come through. By the end of December (when we were already back in Lima, and in limbo so to speak) I was told I was on a long short list, but would only proceed to the final short list if I would confirm attending an interview in Birmingham (at my own expense) towards the end of January 1981. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and with the encouragement of the Dr Sawyer (who promised to keep a position open for me if the Birmingham application was unsuccessful) I headed to the UK.

Since completing my PhD in 1975, I had published three papers from my thesis, and a few others on potato diseases and agronomy. Not an extensive publication list by any stretch of the imagination, compared to what might be expected of faculty candidates nowadays. In reality my work at CIP hadn’t led to many scientific publication opportunities. Publications were not the be-all and end-all metric of success with the international centers back in the day. It’s what one achieved programmatically, and its impact on the lives of potato farmers that was the most important performance criterion. So, while I didn’t have a string of papers to my name, I did have lots of field and managerial experience, I’d worked with genetic resources for a number of years, and my research interests, in taxonomy and biosystematics, aligned well with the new position at Birmingham.

I interviewed successfully (eminent geneticist Professor John Jinks chairing the selection panel), and was offered the lectureship on the spot, from 1 April. The university even coughed up more than half the costs of my travel from Peru for interview. Subject to successfully passing a three-year probation period, I would then be offered tenure (tenure track as they say in North America), the holy grail of all who aspire to life in academia.


Heading to Birmingham
Saying farewell to CIP in mid-March 1981, and after more than eight happy years in South and Central America, Steph, Hannah, and I headed back to the UK via New York, where I had to close our account with Citibank on 5th Avenue.

Steph and Hannah at the top of the Empire State Building

This was just a couple of weeks or so before I was due to begin at Birmingham. We headed first to Steph’s parents in Southend-on-Sea. Since we had nowhere to live in Birmingham, we decided that I should move there on my own in the first instance, and start to look for a house that would suit us.

A few months before I joined Plant Biology, the department had recruited a lecturer in plant biochemistry, Dr John Dodds, a few years younger than me (I was 32 when I joined the university). John and I quickly became friends, and he offered me the second bedroom in his apartment, a short distance from the university.

The search for a house didn’t take long, and by mid-April we’d put in an offer on a house in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of the university, which was to remain our home for the next 39 years until we sold up last September. We moved in at the beginning of July, the day before I had to go away for the following two weeks as one of the staff supervising a second year undergraduate ecology field trip in Scotland. Not the most convenient of commitments under the circumstances. But that’s another story.


I start teaching
So, 40 years on, what are my reflections on the decade I spent at Birmingham?

It was midway through the 1980-81 academic year when I joined the department. I spent much of April settling in. My first office (I eventually moved office three times over the next decade) was located in the GRACE Lab (i.e., Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution Lab) where the CUPGR MSc students were based, in the grounds of Winterbourne House, on the edge of the main university campus, and about ten minutes walk from the department.

The GRACE Lab

The lab had been constructed around 1970 or so to house the Botanical Section of the British Antarctic Survey (before it moved to Cambridge). One other member of staff, Dr Pauline Mumford (a seed physiologist, on a temporary lectureship funded by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – now Bioversity International) also had her office there.

Pauline Mumford (standing, center) with the MSc Class of ’82 (my first full year at Birmingham) from (L-R) Malaysia, Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Bangladesh (x2), Portugal, and Indonesia.

By September, an office had been found for me in the main building. This was necessary since, unlike Pauline, I had teaching commitments to undergraduate students on the honours Biological Sciences degree course, as well as having undergraduate tutees to mentor and meet with on a regular basis.

As I said, I’d been recruited to take over, in the first instance, Jack Hawkes’ teaching commitments, which comprised a contribution to the second year module in plant taxonomy, and evolution of crop plants, one of the main components of the CUPGR course. There were also opportunities to develop other courses, and in due time, this is what I did.

At the end of April 1981, Jack called me into his office, handed me his taxonomy lecture notes and said ‘You’re up tomorrow morning’. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Jack lectured about ‘experimental taxonomy’, patterns of variations, breeding systems and the like, and how taxonomic classification drew on these data. Come the next day, I strode into the lecture theater with as much confidence as I could muster, and began to wax lyrical about breeding systems. About half way through, I noticed Jack quietly walk into the room, and seat himself at the back, to check on how well I was doing (or not). That was one of his mentor roles. He was gone before I’d finished, and later on he gave me some useful feedback—he’d liked what he had seen and heard.

But the lecture hadn’t nearly taken place. One of my colleagues, Dr Richard Lester, who was the lead on the taxonomy module, blithely informed me that he would be sitting in on my lecture the next day. ‘Oh no, you’re not‘ I emphatically retorted. I continued, ‘Walk in and I stop the lecture’. I had never really seen eye-to-eye with Richard ever since the day he had taught me on the MSc Course. I won’t go into detail, but let me say that we just had a prickly relationship. What particularly irked me is that Richard reported our conversation to Jack, and that’s why Jack appeared the next day.

I had quite a heavy teaching load, compared to many of my colleagues, even among those in the other three departments [2] that made up the School of Biological Sciences. Fortunately, I had no first year teaching. Besides my second year plant taxonomy lectures, I developed a small module on agroecosystems in the Second Year Common Course (of which I became chair over the course of the decade).

In their final year, students took four modules each of five weeks (plus a common evolution course). My long-time friend Brian Ford-Lloyd and I developed a module on plant genetic resources. Besides daily lectures, each student had to complete a short research project. I can’t deny that it was always a challenge to come up with appropriate projects that would yield results in such a short period. But I found working alongside these (mostly enthusiastic) students a lot of fun.

Dave Astley

Each year I’d take the group a few miles down the road to the National Vegetable Gene Bank (now the UK Vegetable Genebank) at Wellesbourne, where we’d meet its Director, Dr Dave Astley (who had completed his MSc and PhD, on potatoes with Jack Hawkes at Birmingham). It was a great opportunity for my students to understand the realities of genetic conservation.

I taught a 25 lecture course to the MSc students on crop diversity and evolution, with two practical classes each week during which students would look at as wide a range of diversity as we could grow at Winterbourne (mostly under glass). In this way, they learned about the taxonomy of the different crops, how diversity had developed, their breeding systems, and the like. The practical classes were always the most challenging element to this course. We never knew until each class just what materials would be available.

In 1982, I took a group of students to Israel for a two week course on genetic resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Not all of that year’s intake, unfortunately, as some came from countries that banned travel to Israel.

I developed a module on germplasm collecting, and in the summer months set some field exercises on a synthetic barley population comprising up to ten varieties that differed morphologically, and also matured at different times, among other traits. We would sample this population in several ways to see how each method ‘captured’ the various barleys at the known frequency of each (obviously I knew the proportions of each variety in the population).

The functioning of agroecosystems was something I’d been drawn to during my time in Costa Rica, so I passed some of that interest on to the MSc group, and helped out on some other modules like data management. And I became the Short Course Tutor for students who came to Birmingham for one or other of the two taught semesters, or both in some instances. Looking after a cohort of students from all over the world, who often had limited language skills, was both a challenge and a worthwhile endeavour. To help all of our MSc and Short Course students we worked with colleagues in the English Department who ran courses for students with English as a second language. Each member of staff would record a lecture or more, and these would be worked up into an interactive tutorial between students, ourselves, and the English staff. Once one’s lectures have been pulled apart, it’s remarkable to discover just how many idiomatic phrases one uses quite casually but which mean almost nothing to a non-native speaker.

Each MSc student had to write a dissertation, examined in September at the end of the year (just as I had on lentils in 1971), based on research completed during the summer months after sitting the written exams. Over my decade with the course, I must have supervised the dissertations of 25 students or more, working mainly on potatoes and legumes, and leading in some cases to worthwhile scientific publications. Several of these students went on to complete their PhD under my supervision often in partnership with another research institute like CIP, Rothamsted Experiment Station (now Rothamsted Research), MAFF plant pathology lab in Harpenden, and the Food Research Institute in Norwich.

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With PhD students Ghani Yunus (from Malaysia) and Javier Francisco-Ortega (from Spain-Canary Islands).

The course celebrated it 20th anniversary in 1989, and among the celebrations we planted a medlar tree (sadly no longer there) in the Biological Sciences quadrangle.

Left of the tree: Professor Smallman, Jim Callow, Trevor Williams, Jack Hawkes. Right of the tree: Mike Jackson, Richard Lester, Mike Lawrence. And many students, of course.


Tutees
Earlier, I mentioned that at the beginning of each academic year every staff member was assigned a group of students (the annual intake then was more than 100 students, and is considerably larger today) as tutees, with whom we would meet on a regular basis. These tutorial sessions, one-on-one or in a small group, were an informal opportunity of assessing each student’s progress, to set some work, and overall to help with their well-being since for many, attending university would be the first time they were away from home, and fending for themselves. The tutorial system was not like those at the Oxbridge colleges.

Most students flourished, some struggled. Having someone with whom to share their concerns was a lifeline for some students. I always thought that my tutor responsibilities were among the most important I had as a member of staff, and ensuring my door was always open (or as open as it could be) whenever a tutee needed to contact me. Not all my colleagues viewed their tutorial responsibilities the same. And I do appreciate that, today, with so many more students arriving at university, staff have to structure their availability much more rigidly, sometimes to excess.

In October 1981, my first final year tutee was Vernonica ‘Noni’ Tong* who went on to complete a PhD with my close colleague, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence on incompatibility systems in poppies. Noni joined the Genetics Department and rose to become Professor of Plant Cell Biology (now Emeritus). Several others also went on to graduate work. Another, Julian Parkhill, graduated around 1987 or 1988, went on to Bristol for his PhD, and is now Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2014.

I like to think that, in some way, I helped these students and others make wise career choices, and instilled in them a sense of their own worth. At least one former tutee (who completed her PhD at the University of Durham) has told me so, and that made it all worthwhile.


The School of Biological Sciences
In September 1982, Jack Hawkes retired from the Mason Chair of Botany, and a young lecturer, Jim Callow from the University of Leeds, was elected to the position. Jim took on the role of MSc Course leader, but the day-to-day administration fell to Brian Ford-Lloyd (as Tutor) and myself (for the Short Course students). Jim was a physiologist/ biochemist with an interest in biotechnology, but nothing about genetic resources. He also had little understanding (or sympathy, so I felt) for my areas of research and teaching interests. He frankly did not understand, so I never developed a good relationship with him.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

My closest colleague in the department was Brian who had been appointed to a lectureship around 1977 or 1978. He had completed his PhD in the department in 1973, and he and I were graduate students together until I moved to Peru. We became good friends, and this friendship has lasted until today. He also lived in Bromsgrove, and after I returned to the UK on retirement in 2010, Brian (now Professor Ford-Lloyd) and I would meet up every few weeks for a few beers at the Red Lion on Bromsgrove’s High Street, and to put the world to rights.

On reflection, I can say that relationships among the staff of Plant Biology were pretty harmonious, notwithstanding the comment I made earlier. But several staff were approaching retirement as well, so there was quite a change in the department when a couple of young lecturers were also appointed within a year of me, Drs John Newbury and Jon Green, both of whom also rose to professorships late in their careers.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the School of Biological Sciences underwent a fundamental reorganization, abandoning the federal system, and transforming into a single department with a unitary Head of School. Much to the chagrin of my friends and colleagues in Genetics, Jim Callow was selected as the first Head of School under this new arrangement. To replace the old four department structure, we organized ourselves into five research themes. I joined the Plant Genetics Group, moving my office once again closer to other group members. As a member of this group, I probably had two or three of the best years I spent at Birmingham, with Dr (later Professor) Mike Kearsey as my head of group.


Research and publications
My research interests focused on potatoes and legumes, often sustained by a healthy cohort of MSc and PhD students.

One project, funded by the British government from overseas aid budget in partnership with CIP, investigated the options for breeding potatoes grown from true potato seed. A project that we had to pull the plug on after five years.

In another, Brian and I worked with a commercial crisping (potato chips, in US parlance) company to produce improved potato varieties using induced somaclonal variation, leading to some interesting and unexpected implications for in vitro genetic conservation. There was also an interesting PR outcome from the project.

All in all, my group research led to 29 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, several book chapters, and a range of contributions to the so-called grey literature (not peer-reviewed, but nonetheless important scientifically). You can open a list of those Birmingham publications here.

I’m also proud of the introductory textbook on genetic resources that Brian and I wrote together, published in 1986. It quickly sold its print run of more than 3000 copies.

Then, in 1989, we organized a weekend conference (with Professor Martin Parry of the Department of Geography) on climate change, leading to the pioneer publication of the conference proceedings in 1990 [3] in this newly-emerged field of climate change science. Brian, Martin and I collaborated almost a quarter of a century later to edit another book on the same topic.

I was fortunate to undertake one or two consultancies during my years at Birmingham. The most significant was a three week assignment towards the end of the decade to review a seed production project funded by the Swiss government, that took us Huancayo in the Central Andes, to Cajamarca in the north, and Cuzco in the south, as well as on the coast. This was an excellent project, which we recommended for second phase funding, that ultimately collapsed due to the conflict with the terrorist group Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso that affected all parts of Peruvian society.

The seed project review team (L-R): Peruvian agronomist, me (University of Birmingham), Cesar Vittorelli (CIP Liaison), Swiss economist (SDC), Carlos Valverde (ISNAR, team leader)

With funding from the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega was able to collect an indigenous legume species from his native Canary Islands in 1989, for his dissertation research. I joined Javier for three weeks on that trip.

Collecting escobon (Chamaecytisus proliferus) in Tenerife in 1989


All work and no play . . .
Each December, the Plant Biology Christmas party was usually held at Winterbourne House. For several years, we organized a pantomime, written and produced by one of the graduate students, Wendy (I don’t remember her surname). These were great fun, and everyone could let their hair down, taking the opportunity for some friendly digs at one staff member or another. In the photos below, I played the Fairy Godmother in a 1987 version of Cinderella, and on the right, I was the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, seen here with graduate student Hilary Denny as Aladdin. In the top left photo, kneeling on the right, and wearing what looks like a blue saucepan on his head, is Ian Godwin, a postdoc from Australia for one year. Ian is now Professor of Crop Science at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation. To Ian’s left is Liz Aitken, also a postdoc at that time who came from the University of Aberdeen, and now also a Professor at the University of Queensland.

Then, in the summer months, I organized a departmental barbecue that we held in Winterbourne Gardens, that were part of the department in those days, and now open to the public. In this photo, I’m being assisted by one of my PhD students, Denise Burman.

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Moving on
So why did I leave in July 1991?

Professor Martin Parry

Towards the end of the 1980s I also became heavily involved in a university-wide initiative, known as Environmental Research Management or ERM, to promote the university’s expertise in environmental research, chaired by Martin Parry (I became the Deputy Chair). So, coupled with my own teaching, research, and administrative duties in Biological Sciences, I was quite busy, and on my way to promotion. I was doing all the ‘right things’, and working my way up the promotions ladder (competing with all other eligible staff in the Science Faculty). It was quite helpful that the Dean of the Science Faculty, Professor George Morrison (a nuclear physicist), and someone with his finger on the promotions pulse, also took a close interest in ERM, and I got to know him quite well.

When I handed in my resignation in March 1991, I knew that my application for promotion to Senior Lecturer was about to be approved (I was already on the Senior Lecturer pay scale). By then, however, life in academia had lost some of its allure. And Margaret Thatcher was to blame.

Around 1998 or 1989, the Thatcher government forced a number of ‘reforms’ on the universities, bringing in performance initiatives and the like, without which the government would not consider either increased funding to the system or pay increases for staff.

So we all underwent performance management training (something I became very familiar with during the next phases of my career). It was made clear that staff who were struggling (as teachers, researchers, or even with administration) would be offered help and remedial training to up their game. Those of us performing well (which included myself) were offered the opportunity to take on even more. It was a breaking point moment. With the increased emphasis on research performance and research income, I felt that my time in academia had almost run its course. My research interests did not easily attract research council funding. I was beginning to feel like a square peg in a round hole.

So, when in September 1990, a job advert for the position of head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI landed on my desk, I successfully threw my hat in the ring, and joined IRRI in July 1991, remaining there for the next 19 years, before retiring back to the UK in May 2010.

With few regrets I resigned and prepared for the move to the Philippines. I had to see my students (both undergraduate and MSc) through their exams in June before I could, with good conscience, leave the university. My last day was Friday 30 June, and Brian often reminds me that when he came round to our house in Bromsgrove to say goodbye and wish me well the following day, he was shocked at how white-faced and stressed I appeared. Well, it was a big move and I was leaving the family behind for the next six months, and heading off into the unknown to some extent. Early on Sunday morning I headed to Birmingham International Airport to begin the long journey east via London Heathrow.


But that’s not quite the end of my academic life. Not long after I joined IRRI, I was appointed Affiliate Professor of Agronomy at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). Then, with Brian, John Newbury, and colleagues at the John Innes Centre, we developed a collaborative research project looking at the application of molecular markers to study and manage the large rice germplasm collection at IRRI. I was appointed Honorary Senior Lecturer at Birmingham, and for several years when I was back on home leave I would visit the university and lecture to the MSc students on the realities and challenges of managing a large genebank, as well as following up on our research collaboration.

That came to an end when the funding ran out after five years, and I moved out of research and genebank management at IRRI into a senior management position as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

As Director for Program Planning and Communications, I had line management responsibility for (L-R) Communications and Publications Services (Gene Hettel), IRRI’s library (Mila Ramos), IT Services (Marco van den Berg), the Development Office (Duncan Macintosh), and Program Planning (Corinta Guerta).


Was I cut out for a life in academia? Yes and no. I think I fulfilled my duties conscientiously, and with some success in some aspects. I admit that my research contributions were not the strongest perhaps. But I did mostly enjoy the teaching and the interaction with students. I always felt that not enough weight was given to one’s teaching contributions. Back in the day research was the main performance metric, and increasingly the amount of research funding that one could generate. That was a bit of a treadmill. So while I mostly enjoyed my decade at Birmingham, I found the next nineteen years at IRRI far more satisfying. I had the opportunity to put my stamp on an important component of the institute’s program, bringing the genebank and its operations into the 21st century, and ensuring the safety and availability of one of the world’s most important germplasm collections. Having left genebanking behind in 2001, I then enjoyed another nine years as a member of the institute’s senior management team. And, on reflection, I think those management years gave me the most satisfaction of my career.


Roger Rowe

[1] Steph also worked at CIP as an Associate Geneticist assisting the head of department, Dr Roger Rowe (who co-supervised my PhD research), to manage the germplasm collection. Prior to joining CIP, Steph had been a research assistant with the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that, in those days, was housed at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh. The CPC is now maintained at the James Hutton Institute west of Dundee.

[2] These were: Zoology & Comparative Physiology; Genetics; and Microbiology. With Plant Biology, the four departments were administratively semi-independent in a federal School of Biological Sciences, coming together to teach a degree in Biological Sciences, with specialisms in the component disciplines. All first year biologists took the same common course, as well as a multidisciplinary common course in their second year and an evolution course in the third and final year.

In 2000, the School of Biological Sciences merged with the School of Biochemistry to form the School of Biosciences. Then, in 2008, there was a much larger university-wide reorganization, and Biosciences became part of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, one of five Colleges that replaced Faculties across the university.

[3] Jackson, M., B.V. Ford-Lloyd & M.L. Parry (eds.), 1990. Climatic Change and Plant Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London, p. 190.

* On 6 May 2021, it was announced that Noni had been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society!