The will of the British people?

A common (but misleading and annoying) refrain, frequently repeated by Prime Minister Theresa May and other Brexit supporters, is that delivering Brexit is ‘the will of the British people’, respecting the vote of the June 2016 referendum. Delivery of Brexit and hang the consequences!

Will of the British people? Whatever does that mean? And who are the British?

Yes, the Leave campaign was supported by more voters, 52:48% and ‘won’ the referendum. However, only 37.4% of the electorate (of 46.5 million) actually voted Leave. Not even 50% or more. Had they supported Brexit to that level then it would be appropriate to make that claim. As it is, it’s just a ridiculous platitude that Theresa May repeats ad nauseam.

So voting to leave the EU was the will of the British people? Well, let’s see how they voted.

Blue: Leave; yellow: Remain (2016 referendum result)

Actually, voting to Leave was the will of a majority of the English and the Welsh, although listening to the antediluvian Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, you might be led to believe that the Province also voted overwhelmingly to Leave.

There is now strong evidence that voting preferences have changed (in favour of Remain) since the referendum as the potential impact of Brexit (especially a No Deal Brexit) has dawned on a naïve electorate.

L: the actual results of the 2016 referendum by local authority. R: voting intention in a Channel 4 survey in November 2018, by local authority. Yellow = Remain; Blue = Leave.

Naïve? Just listen to these British expats who live in or frequently visit Spain. I feel embarrassed (ashamed even) to be part of the same age demographic.

Immigration was a serious driver of the Leave result. I find it incredible that so many voters thought that ending free movement (under the Single Market, if they indeed ever understood what that was) only applied to those EU nationals coming into the UK. Not to the British moving around the EU! And, regrettably, ‘British’ is often perceived (especially by those on the Far Right of politics) simplistically as white English.

As I recently wrote, Brexit perspectives will be forensically dissected at some time in the future when the histories of this debacle come to be written.

If the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, I believe (and fear) the United Kingdom will soon disintegrate. And this once proud, but increasingly impoverished nation, will descend to a state of insignificance on the world stage. Scotland will, in a second referendum, overwhelmingly vote for independence. And who could blame them? Northern Ireland will, within a decade, probably draw even closer to the Irish Republic. I’m not sure about Wales.

Brexiteers (predominantly Tory English MPs) continue to see a role and influence of the UK projecting ‘neo-colonialist’ power (‘lethality’ even) far beyond what this small island nation with a shrinking economy can hope, or should ever again aspire, to achieve. Just take the ludicrous comments of Gavin Williamson, MP for the South Staffordshire constituency and the miserably inadequate Secretary of State for Defence, just a few days ago.

And on the trade and diplomatic front, things aren’t going so well either.

What is also lamentable right now, is that the ‘will of the people’ appears to be cast in stone. Theresa May can bring her failing deal back to Parliament for multiple votes, yet hypocritically denies the electorate the opportunity of comment on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations through holding a second referendum or so-called People’s Vote.

With only 39 days left to Brexit, and nothing clearer appearing on the horizon, it’s about time to recognize that the will of the people has changed. Politics in the UK is broken. Party politics (and survival) have taken precedence over the well-being and future of the country.

I’m a citizen of the United Kingdom, British by nationality. I’m British from England, and I want my British voice and will to be heard and felt along with those from Brits from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

I feel and am European!

 

When the history of Brexit comes to be written

23 June 2016 will forever be remembered as the date when the UK (or parts of it at least) collectively committed an act of great folly, by voting by a slim margin to leave the European Union (EU). No doubt there will be, in due course, a flurry of Brexit histories.

Historians will take the facts and interpret them through a prism of their Leave or Remain beliefs and opinions, prejudices even, and analyze the roles and motives of the dramatis personae.

Facts are facts (despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to disabuse us of this). They can be checked and verified, and nowadays, at the drop of a hat. But they can come back to bite you—as many politicians are finding to their cost during this whole Brexit debacle. Social media like Twitter and Facebook are being used to hold politicians to account.

Here’s just one example, recently resurrected, of Prime Minister Theresa May talking about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic (when she was Home Secretary, and before the referendum), a position on which she has now backtracked to appease and gain the support of the hard Brexiteers on the right of her party.

So when the histories of Brexit come to be written, here’s one suggestion:

I have my own opinions and prejudices. So let me be clear, upfront. I voted to Remain in the EU. I never wanted to leave, and am having a hard time trying to understand why any government would deliberately try and impoverish the nation.

Brexiteers are optimistic about the future; Remainers, like me, are pessimistic. I fear what a No Deal Brexit will mean. And given the appalling use and misuse of facts during and after the 2016 Referendum, I’m not surprised that a small percentage of the electorate actually believe that No Deal means staying in the EU. They have an unwelcome surprise in store should this come to pass.

I think what has depressed me most about the whole Brexit process is the sheer level of ignorance of many who support Leave (many of my generation, 65 and over, who look back through rose-tinted spectacles to a Britain that never was), the mendacity and the documented illegality of the Leave campaign, the dismissal of expert advice (and facts) as Project Fear, and the complete breakdown of commonsense in Parliament as party tribalism reared its ugly head. Party before country!

I can’t help feeling that the ending to the 1991 film Thelma and Louise is a great allegory for Brexit and how Theresa May seems to be leading us to a No Deal Brexit, hang the consequences.

Over the months, I have posted various opinions about Brexit, so I’m not going to go over those points again in any detail.


I’ve consistently argued that the UK should have been, from when it joined in 1973, an enthusiastic member of the EEC/EU, helping to push forward its common agenda, and iron out the idiosyncrasies that inevitably emerge when 28 nations are working on a ‘common’ agenda. The UK should have contributed its well-known (and appreciated) pragmatism to the (often) difficult issues that face the EU. But perhaps UK membership has always been ambivalent. Let Sir Humphrey explain:

We have squandered opportunities, and consistently hectored and whined from the sidelines, even while securing special status for the country in several respects (like the annual rebate, non-membership of Schengen or the Euro, just to mention three). The EU has wasted a considerable amount of time on the ‘British question’. I’m surprised the other EU members didn’t already ask the UK to leave. But no, they loyally stuck with us. And now that we are leaving, many on the Leave side can’t or won’t understand the EU position of the remaining 27 members. They consistently view the EU position as bullying the UK. But any difficulties we brought on ourselves. Well, some of us did. We are leaving of our own volition, not being pushed. We started this sorry state of affairs. The consequences must be laid at our door. No one else’s.


I voted Remain, proud to have done so, and deeply regret the situation the country now finds itself in, with a Parliament in stalemate, and an electorate that is thoroughly disillusioned with politics and the whole Brexit fiasco. And equally, for many, confused about what Brexit really means.

11 pm GMT on Friday 29 March 2019 is fast approaching. Just 49 days. That is the time and date when the UK will leave the EU, withdrawal deal or no deal, unless some miracle happens during the intervening period. And the country is not prepared in any shape or form. Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

Recently, former Prime Minister David Cameron was asked—just after the House of Commons had soundly rejected Theresa May’s negotiated Brexit deal—whether he had any regrets about holding the 2016 referendum. Given that he resigned immediately after defeat in that referendum, after he’d committed himself to a lame Remain campaign (because I do believe that no-one, not even Leavers, expected that the electorate would support Leave), he took no responsibility for the genie he’d released from the Brexit bottle and its consequences. This is what he said.

It seems that David Cameron never expected to hold a referendum, because he never thought the Conservatives would win the 2015 election outright, and would have to go into coalition again with the Lib Dems who, he thought, would oppose a referendum. Having secured a majority for the Conservatives in that General Election, Cameron was a hostage to fortune to his own party. He was committed to a referendum.

Thus holding a referendum and delivering Brexit has little to do with the future well-being of the nation. It had much to do with internal Conservative Party politics and coherence.

The referendum took place. Just a binary question: Leave the EU or Remain. With no thought given it seems, to how Brexit might be delivered and what its consequences might be. I believe that everyone, on both sides of the argument, thought that the referendum result would be to Remain. Just look at Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (key players on the Leave side) the following morning, hardly believing what had happened. As Michael Gove’s wife Sarah Vine supposedly said after the referendum: You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

The morning after . . .

No wonder a frustrated Donald Tusk (President of the European Council) commented just a couple of days ago:Well, cartoonist Matt (in The Daily Telegraph) responded appropriately*:

I often argued that the referendum (if indeed it had to be held at all) should have been a two stage process.The first would be to gauge what the nation favored: IN or OUT? Then, after any deal had been reached to leave the EU and we had a better idea of its consequences, we should have been given the opportunity (in a second vote) to agree with any deal, Leave the EU with No Deal, or Remain a member.

I also strongly believe that, given the constitutional, economic, social, and political implications of leaving the EU, then the first referendum should have met certain thresholds: more than a certain percentage of the electorate had to cast a vote, and an absolute majority had to vote to Leave. As it is, although the turnout was more than 70% in June 2016, Leave won the referendum by a margin of 52:48%, representing only approximately only 37% of the electorate. So it’s disingenuous for Theresa May to claim it’s the will of the British people.

For so long this has been the Leavers’ mantra, but what does it mean?

There’s more immigration from countries outside the EU than under free movement from EU countries. The UK net contribution to the EU is between £8 and £9 billion annually (less than £140 per person, or <2% of government spending, and less than the ‘annual subvention to Northern Ireland‘), after the rebate and other funds that come back to us (such as regional funds that have supported, in particular, less favored parts of the country).

Data (probably 2016) from Business Insider/HMRC (article published in 2017)

And in terms of laws, I haven’t seen Parliament slacking in passing new legislation. But the Brexiteers don’t like the role of the European Court of Justice or the ‘imposition’ of regulations that facilitate industry and business.

So many lies!


So what will the forthcoming histories of Brexit focus on? There are so many perspectives to explore, but I’m not qualified to do so. I can only draw your attention to some of them.

Will it be Theresa May’s pathetic leadership, running from meeting to meeting in recent days like a headless chicken, listening to no-one. Here’s a cartoon by Peter Brookes in today’s The Times that sums up the situation we now find ourselves in:

Or the duplicitous Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party into the electoral wilderness through his tacit support of Brexit. He’s certainly anti-EU as this speech in 2009 (at the time of the second Irish referendum) shows.

If Corbyn claims that his views have changed since then, why will he not support a #PeoplesVote on whether to support Theresa May’s deal or Remain? There is good evidence to suggest that many Leavers have now become Remain supporters now that they can see what Brexit actually means.

Or will histories focus on the reasons why people voted to Leave the EU in 2016? Was it just a protest vote against an unpopular Conservative government that was seen to favor the southeast while imposing austerity on the rest of us? Listen to Cambridge economist Dr Victoria Bateman’s interview with John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today this morning talking about the consequences of Brexit for an electorate that felt left behind and who voted Leave.

What about the anti-immigration issue, whipped up to a frenzy by the likes of Nigel Farage, but tacitly supported by Theresa May as her actions as Home Secretary and Prime Minister have shown?

Commentary must also focus on the illegality of the Leave campaign, and the financial support provided by the likes of Aaron Banks.

Or will historians analyze Project Fear and how the perspectives of experts (in all spheres of business, trade negotiations, economic prospects post-Brexit, and the like) were dismissed by Brexiteers as scaremongering. The odious Marc Francois (MP for  Rayleigh and Wickford) who made these totally unacceptable comments recently.

Then there’s the naivete of politicians like Liam Fox, responsible for international trade, claiming that the UK will strike the best trade deals in the fastest time. The reality is turning out rather differently.

While much debate has focused on the urgency with which Brexiteers want to leave the EU, strike trade deals around the world, and operate on WTO terms, the other advantages of EU membership are glossed over, like our membership in many agencies (at shared cost) that give structure to the way in which we live as a nation (such as air traffic safety, medicines, and the like) that we will have to replicate (at great cost) once we leave the EU.

Yet Brexiteers had no plan whatsoever for leaving the EU—thus Donald Tusk’s outburst a couple of days ago (which was roundly misquoted and condemned by Brexiteers like Peter Bone (but was applauded by many on the Remain side of the argument). Here’s Peter Bone complaining in the House of Commons:

How about the incompetence of David Davis and Dominic Raab, who led negotiations with the EU, but then threw their hands up and left their mess to others? And the likes of John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg and their European Research Group (ERG) acolytes in the House of Commons.

Few politicians have come out of this Brexit mess with honor. But several Tory MPs have consistently opposed the government on Brexit, including Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Justine Greening, and others. They have been vilified in the right-wing media? On the Opposition benches, MPs like Yvette Cooper, Chukka Umunna, and David Lammy have not been afraid to speak out against Brexit and their own front bench leadership (hopeless as it is), to mention just three. And we shouldn’t forget the outstanding Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas.

I hope any future Brexit history takes note of this speech by Labour David Lammy MP, speaking during the Brexit debate in the House of Commons on 10 January this year.

And then there are the heroes and heroines among the general public. Steve Bray (Mr Stop Brexit) is a rare coin dealer from Newport who has been protesting for weeks outside Westminster, day in and day out.

Steve Bray

Then there’s Madeleina Kay (EU Super Girl) who has protested Brexit all over the country and in many capitals among the other 27 EU members.

And the articulate Femi Oluwole.

Dr Mike Galsworthy, a geneticist at University College London and co-founder of Scientists for EU and Healthier IN the EU seems to have put his career on hold to fight Brexit.

Well done to him and the others.

So, there you have it. If you’ve got this far you will see that my comments have been presented through my ‘Remain prism’. And I’m not embarrassed to admit it. If Brexit does come to pass, I fear we will be a diminished nation, our Union will dissolve and Scotland will go its own way. How long before this insignificant nation is ousted from its seat on the Security Council of the United Nations? Its world standing will have decreased to such a level that it surely cannot continue as before. Oh, I forgot. Brexiteers look at life through rose-colored glasses. Put ‘Great’ back into Great Britain. Pathetic.


* For my non-UK/EU followers, Ode to Joy (from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) is the EU’s anthem played on official occasions.

You can do better than this, Network Rail (updated 18 February & 14 April)

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, and it won’t go away. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Let me explain. Please bear with me.

My home town, Bromsgrove, lies at the foot of the Lickey Hills in north Worcestershire (map). The rail mainline from Birmingham to the southwest (through Worcester and Cheltenham, on to Bristol and the West Country) passes to the east of the town, having descended the Lickey Incline, ‘the steepest sustained main-line railway incline in Great Britain. The climb is a gradient of 1 in 37.7 (2.65% or 26.5‰ or 1.52°) for a continuous distance of two miles (3.2 km)’.

A new station was opened in 2016, and the line was subsequently electrified.

The new electric trains (operated by West Midlands Railways in their bright gold and silvery grey livery) came into service in July 2018 as part of the Cross City line connecting Bromsgrove with Lichfield to the north of Birmingham.

I wrote a blog post about the station in 2016, and updated it last November.

There are three bridges over the railway near the new station, one to the south (at a housing development known as Breme Park that had been built on the site of the former Garringtons Ltd or United Engineering Forgings), and two to the north (one over St Godwald’s Road, and the other over the B4184, Finstall Road), indicated by arrows on the map below. All three bridges are owned by Network Rail, which ‘own[s] and operate[s] the railway infrastructure in England, Wales and Scotland on behalf of the nation. That’s 20,000 miles of track, 30,000 bridges and viaducts and thousands of tunnels, signals, level crossings and points’.

Until recently these bridges were great vantage points to watch rail traffic up and down the Lickey Incline. No longer. During the installation the overhead electrification it wasn’t necessary to raise any of the three bridges in Bromsgrove. However, as a safety feature to prevent anyone leaning over the parapets, steel cladding was erected on both sides of each bridge, as illustrated in this photo to the right. I didn’t manage to take any photos of the bridges with all this cladding, but you can now imagine what it must have looked like. Very unsightly.

Now the cladding has been replaced on all three bridges—for better or worse. That’s why a bee is busy buzzing. Let me show you, bridge by bridge.

To the south of the station, there is a steel and brick bridge that connects with public footpaths on the east side. It’s just a muddy track, but wide enough for a vehicle to cross. From here was the perfect spot to watch trains approaching, at speed, round the bend from the south. Almost all the steel cladding has gone, except at each end of the bridge on both sides. I cannot understand why Network Rail would leave the bridge with four sets of steel cladding, unless workmen will return at a later date to replace the remain panels. Click on each image to enlarge.

In the center and right below, can be seen the view, north and south from the bridge, from the ends of the bridge. On the left is the view south towards the bridge from the station platform.

Just north of the station (close to where the old station was sited until 2016), a concrete bridge crosses St Godwald’s Road. On the top of the parapet has been placed a single course of ‘plastic bricks’. Since the parapet itself is flat, Network Rail made a better job here. It wasn’t so complicated. Yet, on the rail side of the north parapet, there is much to be desired, as the ‘bricks’ don’t appear to be fully secured.

Then there is the bridge further north carrying the B4184 Finstall Road over the mainline. This is actually a concrete structure, but the parapets were faced with pink sandstone blocks that have weathered over the decades, and are in keeping with the surrounding area.

But what a botched job Network Rail has made of placing a course of ‘bricks’ on the top of each parapet. This a view of the bridge from the south (rail) side.

On the bridge itself, south and north sides, it’s hard to believe that anyone signed off on this as a completed job, well done. Just look at how they have placed the ‘bricks’. Let’s look at the south side first.

And on the north side, it’s almost as bad. And in the process, some of the stonework has been damaged.

On one of my walks a couple of weeks ago (on 21 January to be precise), I took a few photos on my mobile and sent a couple of tweets to Network Rail:

To their credit, Network Rail did reply within an hour, and through emails they have now referred this issue to a local team to investigate: Your service request has been assigned to our RAM Structures team to investigate further. They will report back shortly with their findings and your local contact and communities team will be in contact to confirm the next steps in due course. There’s even a job number, #190121-000205.

Nothing has happened yet, but I’ll keep monitoring the situation—and bugging Network Rail—until the buzzing has gone away*.

But why have I become so incensed about this situation? The casual use of resources is unacceptable in these difficult fiscal times. But maybe I’m just becoming a grumpy old fart.

I have no idea what budget was allocated to, firstly, install the steel cladding, and secondly, the replacement panels and ‘bricks’. Thousands of pounds, undoubtedly. How many person-days so far? And, for the bridge on the Finstall Road, because there is a pavement on only one side (the south) the road had to be partially closed (with traffic signals) for about three weeks, disrupting traffic for the local community.

But as I’ve already said, I can’t imagine how anyone could think that this workmanship was acceptable, up to standard. And that goes against my sensibilities of doing something right the first time!

These are the only views now possible from the bridge on St Godwald’s Road. The middle image below was taken from the car park of the old station, and shows a West Midlands Railways train departing from Platform 3, and then crossing over on to the up line. Diesel trains (shown here) to and from Hereford via Worcester stop at Bromsgrove.


* On 12 February, I received a further update from Network Rail, which I reproduce here in full:

Dear Mr Jackson,

Thank you for your recent communication to our National Helpline on the 21 January 2019.

As part of the scope of works of the Bromsgrove electrification, our project team have had to ensure that at all bridges over the railway a minimum of 1.8 metre high parapets have to be in place to protect users of the bridge from the presence of live electrification equipment below. From July 2018 this was permanently energised at 25,000 volts.
In some cases (such as the new Bromsgrove station footbridge and newly-reconstructed bridges in the Barnt Green and Blackwell areas), this height separation has been provided from new. At bridges which have not needed to be reconstructed, we have raised the heights of the parapets, there being three such structures in the Bromsgrove area.

The designs for parapet height extension have gone through a number of approval processes, which have taken some time. Temporary steel screening has been installed at the bridges – including Finstall Road – to provide the necessary separation in the interim between energisation of the electrification and the approval and delivery of the permanent works. Planning consent has been sought and received, with an inert colour incorporated into the material used (GRP).

Volker Rail is the contractor undertaking the works (under subcontract to MPB), and over a number of weekends has progressively installed the cladding and when able, removed the temporary steel cladding. As per the photos supplied by you the temporary gaps left between the GRP panels, some of which were filled in the interim with plywood panels, were of work still in progress whilst the GRP ones were being fabricated.

While I appreciate this may not be the answer that you were hoping for, and there may still be some work outstanding, the work to date is as per the design.

For the rest of your enquiry about the costs involved in this project, if you would like to pursue this information, we would kindly request for you to make a separate enquiry as this would require a Freedom of Information request.

Kind Regards
Community Relations

Now, there’s a couple of points I’d like to make. First, I have never questioned the necessity of meeting health and safety issues by installing raised parapets. I completely see the need for these, while feeling disappointed (along with many others, I’m sure) that the views up and down the Lickey Incline have now been reduced or lost. Second, the reply from Network Rail is ambiguous whether the job at the bridges is a ‘work in progress’ and yet to completed, or whether this is now the finished article, so to speak. If it’s a ‘work in progress’ I’m surprised that Network Rail did not agree with the contractor (Volker Rail) a more convenient start date when all the materials necessary for the job had been assembled. If the contractor has to return that will mean more expense and road closure inconvenience perhaps.


Update (14 April 2019)
While out for a short walk yesterday I decided to check if any more work had been carried out on the bridge on the Finstall Road. I’d noticed that the parapet on the south side had been repaired a week earlier. And I was pleasantly surprised to see that the north side had also now been brought up to standard.

Parapets on the south side of the bridge.

On the north side.

After I’d downloaded the images from my phone, I decided to send a tweet to Network Rail:

Network Rail seemed pleased with my tweet.


 

Lentils (and Mrs. Vavilov) on my mind . . .

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943)—The Father of Plant Genetic Resources—is one of my scientific heroes. Yet I knew nothing about him until September 1970 when I began my graduate studies concerning the conservation and use of plant genetic resources at The University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany as it was then).

Last Saturday, 26 January, was the 76th anniversary of Vavilov’s death in a Soviet prison.

Prison photos of Vavilov.

Vavilov’s grave in Saratov.

Botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong (@Botanygeek) posted a short thread of tweets about Vavilov. So, I tweeted a reply to James about three scientists (two I worked with; the other I’d been introduced to) who met Vavilov in the 1930s.

I followed up with another  tweet.

Actually, Elena Barulina (1896-1957) was Vavilov’s second wife who passed away just two years after Vavilov had been ‘rehabilitated’ by the Soviet government, as she was working her way through his various publications.

Vavilov had first married Ekaterina Saharova in 1912, and they had one son, Oleg (born 1918).

Vavilov with his first wife Ekaterina, and son Oleg.

Vavilov divorced Ekaterina in 1926 and married Elena; they had one son, Yuri (born 1928). Both Oleg and Yuri became physicists, like their renowned uncle Sergey, Nikolai’s younger brother. Ekaterina died in 1963 never having remarried.

Elena Barulina and Nikolai Vavilov.


Elena (Helena) Barulina was an international lentil expert, publishing an important monograph in 1930. During the course of 1970-71, I got to know this publication in great detail.

So how did I get involved with lentils, and what was the outcome? As part of the MSc course requirements at Birmingham, each student had to present a short dissertation. I opted to carry out a study of crop variation, but first I had to choose the species for my study.

Trevor Williams

My dissertation supervisor was Dr J Trevor Williams (who went on to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources or IBPGR (that then became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI, and is now Bioversity International) in Rome.

In November 1970, we scanned the pages of Flora Europaea, looking for potential targets among the various legume species. And there, under the cultivated lentil (Lens culinaris) was the important comment: Origin unknown. Now there was a challenge if ever we saw one!

Lentil is an ancient crop, associated with the earliest developments and spread of agriculture in the Near East and Mediterranean, and this is where the wild lentil species are also found. When I began my study, there were just five recognized lentil species (this was increased to seven in a 2015 paper):

  • Lens culinaris (the cultivated species)
  • L. orientalis
  • L. nigricans
  • L. ervoides
  • L. montbretii (now regarded as a species of Vicia)

I presented my dissertation, Studies in the genus Lens Miller with special reference to Lens culinaris Medik., in September 1971, having used Barulina’s monograph as my lentil ‘Bible’ throughout.

I grew a large field trial of lentil varieties and, from my analysis of the variation in morphological characters, some chromatographic analyses, and growth pattern relationships, concluded that the small- and large-seeded forms described by Barulina as subsp. microsperma and subsp. macrosperma were the extremes of a continuous variation pattern, and not correlated with geographical origin. Similar small- and large-seeded forms can also be seen in other legumes like faba bean and grasspea.

To analyze the relationships between the different lentil species, I spent several days working in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, measuring variation in many morphological characters on as many herbarium specimens of lentil species I could get my hands on. I also borrowed herbarium specimens from several other herbaria. In all I must have looked at least a couple of hundred herbarium sheets.

Hybrid indices for lentil species.

Species were compared by constructing hybrid indices (a numerical method developed and first described in 1949 by renowned American botanist, Edgar Anderson—another scientific hero of mine—in his seminal publication Introgressive Hybridization). This allowed me to determine to what extent variation patterns in lentil species overlapped, or were distinct. Click on the image to the right to see an enlarged version of the resulting hybrid indices.

While the variation patterns between some species were quite distinct, the continuity in variation between L. orientalis and L. culinaris led me to the conclusion that we might be describing a wild species progenitor-domesticate relationship. And, indeed, this is what I proposed in my dissertation.

A year later, the eminent Israeli botanist Daniel Zohary actually published a paper¹ in the scientific journal Economic Botany arriving at the same conclusion. The studies I commenced in 1970-71 were continued by Carmen Sánchez Kilner the following year, and in our 1974 paper we proposed that L. culinaris and L. orientalis were subspecies of the same species, L. culinaris. In 1979, another Israeli botanist, Gideon Ladizinsky, reached the same conclusion based on hybridization experiments and cytogenetic analysis, in a paper published in Euphytica.

Today, I’m sure students would dive straight into analyses of molecular markers to clarify the taxonomy and species relationships. Almost 50 years ago these techniques were not available, so we had to rely on a thorough analysis of species morphology, an approach that is often regarded today as ‘old hat’ but still remains the solid foundation of plant taxonomy. It was an approach that served us well, and our conclusions were corroborated by others later on.

I see my studies on lentils as an important link to Vavilov and his colleagues such as Elena Barulina. Also, in later research, I drew on Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series and its relevance to potatoes, especially with regard to resistance to the cyst nematode (Globodera spp.).

It’s also interesting to note just how relevant the ‘Vavilov approach’ still is today (76 years after his death), guiding the exploration and use plant genetic resources to increase agricultural productivity, which was the focus of my career over 40 years.


¹ Zohary, D., 1972. The wild progenitor and the place of origin of the cultivated lentil, Lens culinaris. Econ. Bot. 26: 326–332.

A botanical field trip to the south of Peru . . . 45 years ago

In 1976, a paper appeared in the scientific journal Flora, authored by University of St Andrews botanist Peter Gibbs¹ (now retired), on the breeding system of a tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), that is grown by farmers throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia.

Like a number of Oxalis species, oca has a particular floral morphology known as heterostyly that promotes outcrossing between different plants. In his 1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, Charles Darwin had illustrated (in Fig. 11) the particular situation of tristyly in ‘Oxalis speciosa‘, the same floral morphology that is found in oca. In this illustration taken from Darwin’s publication, the ‘legitimate’ pollinations are shown; stigmas can only receive pollen from stamens at the same level in another flower.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Peter had visited Peru in early 1974 (hard to believe that it’s 45 years ago), made collections of oca from a number of localities, particularly one village, Cuyo Cuyo, in the Department of Puno in the south of Peru (just north of Lake Titicaca), and then studied the breeding system of the oca varieties that he’d collected. His 1976 paper in Flora emanated from that field trip.


But there’s more to that story (and publication) than meets the eye. It was also tied up with the research I was carrying out on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes at that time. Peter and I made that field trip together, spending at least three weeks on the road, before flying back to Lima from Cuzco.

I don’t recall precisely when I first met Peter. We were obviously in touch when planning the trip south, but I simply can’t remember whether, during 1973, Peter had passed through Lima where I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina since January that year, or he had contacted CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asking if the center could provide logistical support and the DG had passed that request on to me. Whatever the course of events, Peter and I came to an agreement to make a field trip together to the south of Peru.

This is the route of more than 2000 km that we took.

While working as an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I was also registered for a PhD in potato biosystematics (under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes at The University of Birmingham) which I was expected to complete by 1975. My work, studying the breeding relationships of potato varieties with different chromosome numbers was similar, in some respects, to that Peter envisaged with oca.

I’d been looking for suitable field locations where it might be possible to study the dynamics of potato cultivation in an ‘unspoiled’ area where mostly traditional potato varieties were cultivated rather than varieties bred and released on the market in recent years. At the back end of 1973 I made a short visit to Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca to explore several possible field sites. Then, Peter proposed we visit the remote village of Cuyo Cuyo, around 250 km north of Puno. He’d come across a paper (either one by AW Hill in 1939 or another by WH Hodge in 1951 – both are cited by Peter in his Flora paper) that described widespread oca cultivation at Cuyo Cuyo on a series of ancient terraces, but also of potato varieties. I wasn’t sure if this was the location I was looking for, but agreed that we could explore Cuyo Cuyo first before heading north towards Cuzco in search of other likely sites.


Our journey south to Puno took at least three days if memory serves me correctly. Our trusty chariot was a short wheelbase Land Rover, with a canvas hood.

Not the most secure vehicle if you have to park up overnight in an unprotected lot. Nor the most comfortable; very sturdy suspension. But an excellent vehicle otherwise for ‘driving’ out of tricky situations.

We headed south on the Panamericana Sur, stopping at Ica or Nazca on the first night south of Lima, then on the Arequipa on the second day.

The Panamericana hugs the coast through the southern desert, crossing river valleys that flow down from the Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean. Along these, and in the area of Camana (where the road heads inland to Arequipa) quite a lot of rice is grown.

From Arequipa it must have taken another day to travel to Puno across the altiplano.

We then had another night to recoup in Puno, enjoying a comfortable bed, some good food, and perhaps one too many algarrobina cocktails (made from pisco) that Peter had taken a shine to.

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno


It took a day to travel to Cuyo Cuyo, across the altiplano (>4000 masl), fording rivers, and then, as we approached the village from the south, dropping into a steep-sided valley, the Sandia Gorge.

We hit a cloud layer, obscuring views of the valley, but also coming across a landslide that had to be cleared before we could make progress.

Once past that barrier, the cloud cleared and we began to see something of the majesty of the Cuyo Cuyo valley, with the steep valley sides covered in ancient terraces that, as we discovered over the next few days, were still be farmed communally as they had been for generations apparently. On the descent into Cuyo Cuyo, the banks alongside the road were also covered in masses of a beautiful begonia (Begonia clarkei Hook.) with large white flowers about 3-4 inches in diameter.


Where to stay? There was no hotel or pensión in Cuyo Cuyo. We did however have some camping gear with us such as camp beds, sleeping bags and the like. Plus all our other equipment for collecting (and drying) herbarium samples, and flowers and flower buds for pollen and chromosome studies.

After some enquiries we met Sr Justo Salas Rubín (who was, if I remember correctly, the local postmaster – seen with Peter below) who gave us space in one of the rooms of his home (the ‘post office’?) to set up ‘camp’. We also soon became quite a curiosity for the local children (and some animal friends as well).

I was not disappointed that we chose Cuyo Cuyo first. It was an extraordinary location where we could interact with potato and oca farmers who grew a wide range of varieties, and who were open to collaborate with us. Since that visit in 1974 several other botanists (and anthropologists) have made field studies at Cuyo Cuyo on the agricultural terraces that I described here.

While Peter set about collecting samples in the many oca fields (mainly beside the river on the valley floor), I set off up the terraces to study a couple of fields for their varietal composition, the ploidy (or chromosome number) of these varieties, and the factors that led farmers to accept or reject varieties. I was interested to see how triploid varieties (sterile forms with 36 chromosomes that can only be formed following hybridization between varieties with 48 and 24 chromosomes) could enter farmer systems, and at what frequency.

I also looked at the methods used to cultivate potatoes, and the tools used.²

On the left is a foot plough, about 4 feet in length, known in Cuyo Cuyo as a ‘huire’ (most often ‘chaqui taccla’ in other parts of Peru). Its component parts are: A. ‘calzada’ that rests on the shoulder; B. ‘huiso’ or hand grip; C. ‘lazo’ or leather binding fastening the parts together; D. ‘taquillpo’ or foot rest; and E. the ‘reja’ or blade. On the right is a hand tool used for harvesting potatoes (and presumably oca as well) called the ‘lawccana’, as well as other cultivations during the growing season. Its component parts are: A. the ‘ccalo’ or handle; B. the ‘lazo’, a leather thong holding the blade C. or ‘chonta’ on to the handle.

My paper on potatoes at Cuyo Cuyo was finally published in 1980 in the journal Euphytica. And that’s a tale in itself.³

Peter was keen to make herbarium sheets of many of the varieties he’d collected. We set up a dryer in the house where we were staying. But there was a problem. Most of the samples were pretty wet to begin with, as we experienced intermittent rain during our stay in Cuyo Cuyo. Oca stems are very fleshy, and despite our best efforts, they just didn’t dry out. Even when we got them back to Lima, and Peter prepared them for shipping back to St Andrews, many of the samples were still showing signs of life.

Indeed, after he returned to Scotland, Peter was able to take cuttings from his herbarium samples and grow plants to maturity in the glasshouse, thus continuing his studies there.


After three or four days in Cuyo Cuyo, we retraced our steps to Puno, then headed north towards Cuzco and further study sites near Chinchero.

At these, I was particularly interested in taking flower bud samples from different potato fields. In the area we chose, farmers grew a combination of bred varieties for sale in the local markets of Cuzco and, around their homes, native varieties for home consumption. In this photo, large plantings of commercial varieties stretch into the distance. Around the homes in the foreground, in walled gardens, farmers grew their native varieties.

As I was busy looking at different varieties, these two women came by, and one sat down to breastfeed her baby. They are wearing the traditional dress of that region of Cuzco.

On another day we set out to study potato (and oca) fields a little more remote, so had to hire horses to reach our destination.

Field work complete, Peter and I spent a couple of days resting up in Cuzco before flying back to Lima. We left the Land Rover there for one of my colleagues Zósimo Huamán to pick up, as he planned to undertake some fieldwork as well before driving back to Lima.

During the couple of days in Cuzco we paid a call on Prof. César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist (and close friend of my PhD supervisor Jack Hawkes), who I’d met once before in January 1973 not long after I arrived in Peru. Prof Vargas’s daughter Martha studied for her MSc degree in botany at the University of St Andrews.

L to R: my wife Steph, Peter, and Martha Vargas

All in all, we had a successful field trip to the south of Peru. It’s hard to believe it all took place 45 years ago next month. But it remains, in my mind’s eye, quite a significant trip from the years I spent in Peru.


¹ Peter graduated in botany from the University of Liverpool, and completed his PhD in 1964 there under the supervision of Professor Vernon Heywood, who moved to the University of Reading to become head of that university’s Department of Botany a couple of years later. Peter and I had a lot to talk about, because in 1969-70, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, Vernon Heywood gave a series of 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy over 10 weeks to Southampton botanists, because Leslie Watson, Southampton’s taxonomy lecturer had moved to Australia. Vernon and I renewed our acquaintance some years later, in 1991, when he and I attended a genetic resources meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome just before I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

² One interesting piece of information that didn’t make it into my thesis but which I remember clearly was the incidence of geophagy among some residents of Cuyo Cuyo. I was taken to a location where farmers would excavate small quantities of a hard clay, that would be ground to a powder and mixed with water to form a slurry or soft paste. They would then dip recently harvested boiled potatoes in the clay as this, apparently, would decrease the slightly ‘spicy’ flavor of some of the varieties. I’m not sure how widespread this behavior was, but it’s something that has stuck in my mind all these years. I think I once had photos but they are long lost, more’s the pity.

³ I completed my PhD in December 1975, and shortly afterwards moved to Costa Rica to continue working for CIP, in potato breeding and agronomy. I started to prepare three manuscripts from my thesis for publication in Euphytica. The first, on varietal diversity, was submitted in February 1977, and published later the same year. The second, on breeding relationships, was published in 1978, having been submitted in July 1977. The third, on the ethnobotany of potato cultivation in Cuyo Cuyo finally appeared in print in 1980, having been submitted to Euphytica in February 1979.

But Euphytica had not been the first choice for this third paper. I actually produced a manuscript for the journal Economic Botany, and it included more details of the cropping systems and varietal choices made by farmers. My paper was received by the journal and acknowledged, but then I heard nothing more, for months and months. Eventually I wrote to the editor asking about the status of my manuscript. And I received a very strange reply.

It seemed that the editor-in-chief had retired, and his replacement had found, on file, manuscripts that had been submitted up to 20 years earlier, but had never been published! I was asked how I wanted to proceed with my manuscript as there was no guarantee it would appear in print any time soon. But about the same time, I received a nice letter from the then editor of Euphytica, Dr AC Zeven, complimenting me on my PhD thesis (which he had read in the library at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) and encouraging me to publish my work on the ethnobotany of potatoes – if I hadn’t already done so. I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany, and after some reformatting to fit the Euphytica style, sent it to Dr Zeven. He requested some deletions of the more descriptive sections on ethnobotany, and published my paper in 1980.


One last thing: I also remember was the novel that Peter was reading throughout the trip. Watership Down by Richard Adams, first published in 1972, that went on to become a literary sensation. I did read it myself at some point, but whether I borrowed Peter’s copy immediately after the trip, or some time later, I don’t recall. I know I didn’t think it would become the phenomenon that it did. What do I know?


 

Killing me softly . . . memories maketh the man!

Memories. Powerful; fleeting; joyful; or sad. Sometimes, unfortunately, too painful and hidden away in the deepest recesses of the mind, only to be dragged to the surface with great reluctance.

Some memories float to the surface at the slightest instigation. Often all it takes is a glimpse of a treasured landscape, a word spoken by a friend, a few bars of music, or a particular song. Some memories need more persuasion.

And then, one is transported back days, months, years, even decades. Memories can be vague; they can be crystal clear, even while the precise context may be fuzzy round the edges – where, when, or why. They are part and parcel of who each and every one of us is as a person. Without memories, we are nobody.

I have one particular – and very strong – memory whenever Roberta starts to kill me softly . . . Yes, one song. Just a few bars, and I’m taken back 46 years to late January 1973. Lima, Peru.

So why this particular song?

I’d arrived in Lima at the beginning of the month to start my assignment as Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina on the eastern outskirts of the city (now totally subsumed into Lima’s urban sprawl).

After spending a couple of weeks holed up in the Pensión Beech (a guest house in the San Isidro district of Lima), I signed a contract for my own apartment on the 11th or 12th floor of an apartment building (still standing today) at Pasaje Los Pinos in the heart of the Miraflores District. In 1973, there was just a dirt parking lot in front of the apartment building, and the Todos Supermarket (no longer there) was to one side. Now the apartment building is surrounded by high-rise on all sides. It’s a wonder that it has survived about 50 years of earthquakes, including several rather large ones. It never did seem that sturdy to me, but there again, what do I know about engineering?

The arrow indicates the approximate location of my apartment. In January 1973 this building stood in a wide open space – no longer the case.

I moved in, just after my small consignment of airfreight (including a stereo system) had arrived a few days earlier. I had music!

Steph joined me in Lima at the beginning of July 1973, and we stayed in the same apartment for about six weeks more before moving to a larger one elsewhere in Miraflores. My stereo is prominently displayed on the left!

And on the radio station that I tuned into, Radio Panamericana, Killing Me Softly With His Song was played, almost non-stop it seemed, from its release on 21 January 1973 for the next couple of months. It became an instant worldwide success for Roberta Flack. But she wasn’t the first to record it.

KMSWHS was penned by American lyricist Norman Gimbel (who passed away in December 2018), with music by his long-time collaborator Charles Fox. However, there is some dispute over the song’s origins. KMSWHS was originally recorded by American singer Lori Lieberman in 1971.

Whatever the situation, KMSWHS remains a great favorite of mine. Whenever I hear it, I’m 24 years old again, starting out on a career in international agricultural research for development. The world was my oyster!

As I wrote a few years back, I would include KMSWHS on my list of eights discs to take to a desert island. That perspective has not changed.

I’m a 19th century sort of person . . . and a Kindle convert

I started to draft this post several weeks ago, with the intention of completing it between Christmas and the New Year. I was all set to put the finishing touches after Steph and I returned from our short Christmas break with family in the northeast. It was meant to be my last post of 2018. Instead, it’s my first of 2019.

I was laid low by a nasty respiratory viral infection, and that was that. Ten days later and I’m still not fully recovered, but at least I can face sitting at the keyboard and tapping out the few last thoughts of a post I’d expected to complete before now.

I spent much of 2017 working my way through all the novels of Charles Dickens, taking a mid-year break from those to pursue my other literary interest: history, and in recent years, history of the American Civil War. And also towards the end of the year after completing the ‘Dickens literary marathon’. In the process, I have become a convert to the Amazon Kindle.

A couple of years back, my elder daughter Hannah recycled an old Kindle to Steph, but she never really got to grips with it. Once I found there was a wealth of titles available, many free or at a very low cost, I decided to invest some time in this new-fangled gadget. Some of the books I fancied reading were not available in our local library, and we no longer have the shelf space to accumulate more books. I haven’t disposed of any of the many history books I bought over the years we lived in the Philippines. And, each year that we visit Hannah in Minnesota, I have added to that collection with regular visits to Half Price Books in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

But after fifteen Dickens novels, and five Civil War histories, I decided to take a short literary break at the beginning of this year, before starting a rather gruesome—but fascinating—book that my younger daughter Philippa and husband Andi had given me for Christmas.

Written by Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, The Butchering Art is an account of how 19th century medicine, and particularly surgery, was transformed by Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon.

With that under my belt, so to speak, I looked round for my next literary challenge. I attempted to re-read Emma by Jane Austen, but soon grew dissatisfied with the main character. An attempt to re-read the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her (1864) also ended in failure. I’d first read these in the late 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica.

Then, in April, BBC TV screened a five-part adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White, set in Cumberland. Having enjoyed the dramatization, I wondered how true it had been to the original. Of course I knew of the novel, but until then, had never considered reading it. And it was through A Woman in White that I decided that 2018 should be a year when I explored novels that are often considered among the finest of 19th century literature. And a couple of others.

So, I searched out novels by the three Brontë sisters, F Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Alexandre Dumas, and Leo Tolstoy, as well as enjoying three more American Civil War tomes mid-year.

Wuthering Heights, a text that’s almost compulsory reading on high school curricula (but was not on mine). So in my 70th year, I finally got round to investing time with Emily and her sisters Anne and Charlotte. A couple of years ago, in December 2016, the BBC screened an excellent 2-hour drama, To Walk Invisible, about the lives of the Brontë sisters. What that drama emphasized—and what one clearly sees in their writing—was just what extraordinary authors they all were. Sitting around their parlour table in the Haworth rectory, their words conjure up a world way beyond the close confines of their Yorkshire upbringing. Remarkable!

What a joy Wuthering Heights was to read. Heathcliff and Catherine!

Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was completely unknown to me, and like Wuthering Heights is a tale of love among the moors. And of mistaken identity and all its consequences.

Villette is regarded as one of Charlotte’s finest novels, and although it has its merits, the fact that large sections are written in French don’t make it particularly accessible. I have basic French so could more or less follow along. But it was a struggle. It’s based on Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium.

Jane Eyre is much more familiar. How many times has the BBC adapted it for the small screen? We’re currently watching the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson in the lead role. And there have been large screen adaptations as well. The novel is so much better than any of the screen versions I have seen.

In between Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I decided to search out two masterpieces of 20th century American fiction: The Great Gatsby (1925) by F Scott Fitzgerald (and St Paul native), and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). I knew Gatsby from the 1974 film version (script by Francis Ford Coppola) starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. What surprised me was how short the novel was, almost a short story.

Now that I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m still not sure why it’s regarded as such an outstanding novel. I’d only ever watched one or two scenes from the 1962 dramatization starring Gregory Peck, and had expected much of the novel to focus on the trial. Not so. It’s full of observations of small town life in Alabama during the 1930s, seen through the eyes of six year old ‘Scout’ Finch, daughter of town lawyer Atticus Finch who takes on the defence of a young African American accused of raping a white woman.

Considered a classic of American literature, and a Pultizer Prize winner, there’s no doubt that Mockingbird is a significant novel. But I’m still not certain just how significant it is.

The three novels by Alexandre Dumas that I tackled were just a romp, as it were. On reflection, I think that I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo most. The Man in the Iron Mask was not what I expected at all; it’s the third part of a much larger novel, but often distributed on its own.

Mid-year I purchased three more American Civil War biographies, and since our summer road trip took us through Ohio, the Buckeye State, these biographies (1656 pages in total) of murderous guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, and Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S Grant (all hailing from Ohio) were most illuminating.

And as 2018 drew to a close, I was less than one third of the way through Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace, published in 1869.

Even now, I’ve only just reached 40%, and I reckon it will take me a few more weeks yet. I hadn’t really expected to appreciate it very much. I was taken with the 2016 adaptation of the novel on the BBC, and look forward to seeing that again, once I have finished the novel. But War and Peace is a delight, much to my surprise.

Written by British author Bill Laws, I look forward to dipping into Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (2010). This book was another Christmas present from Philippa and Andi. Laws apparently has a book on the potato coming out in 2019.

Having taken a peek at the chapters on potato and rice, I’m not entirely convinced of the focus he took with both of these crops – of which I know quite a bit myself. Anyway, time will tell, once I have delved into the various topics in more detail.

But that won’t be for a week or two yet. I still have to settle the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte, courtesy of Leo Tolstoy.