Exploring the mysteries of sex . . . and taking control!

I’ve been fascinated with sex (especially controlled sex) since my undergraduate days at the University of Southampton between 1967 and 1970. We were the socially permissive flower power generation.

But before you get too excited about this post’s content, I need to point out that, as a former botany student, I’m referring to sex among plants! And plant breeding. The real flower power!


Joe Smartt and Edgar Anderson

I guess it all started with two final year honours course on plant speciation (how different species evolve) and plant breeding, taught by geneticist Dr Joe Smartt. It was through the first that I discovered the beauty of introgressive hybridization (a mechanism that blends the gene pools of separate species; see a diagrammatic explanation in this post), a concept first expounded by another of my botanical heroes, Dr Edgar Anderson. And, there was this transformative book to dip into: Variation and Evolution in Plants (published 1950) by another great American botanist, G Ledyard Stebbins. In Joe’s introduction to plant breeding, we followed yet another classic text: Principles of Plant Breeding by American plant breeder and geneticist, Robert W Allard.

Trevor Williams

And when I moved to the University of Birmingham as a graduate student in September 1970, to study for a Master’s degree in plant genetic resources, Trevor Williams taught a fascinating course on plant variation, emphasising their breeding systems, and how understanding of these was important for the conservation and use of genetic resources. Much of my career subsequently was then spent studying variation and breeding systems in two important crop species, potatoes and rice, and a minor legume species, the grasspea.


Plants reproduce in the most weird and wonderful ways. If they didn’t, humanity’s days would be numbered. Where would we be if wheat and rice plants failed to produce their grains, the potato its underground treasure of tubers, or the banana those abundant hands of green fruits? No wonder in times past folks celebrated a Harvest Festival each autumn to give thanks for a successful harvest.

Beautiful acorns on the pedunculate oak, Quercus robur

You only have to look about you in late summer, as I did each day on my walks last year, to see Nature’s bounty all around—the consequence of plant sex. The trees and bushes were dripping with fruit—2020 was a mast year (as I have written about before). I don’t think I’ve seen such a year for acorns on the oak trees. And the chestnuts, hazels, and so many others. Such exuberant fecundity!


Have you ever looked closely at a ‘typical’ flower? Well, for the most part you can see the female pistil(s) comprising the style, stigma, and ovary, and the male stamens that carry the pollen.

However, there are many variations on this basic theme, different arrangements of the sex organs, even separate male and female flowers on the same plant (known as monoecy; maize is a good example) or separate plants (dioecy; holly). Differences in plant reproductive morphology promote self fertilization or cross fertilization. In addition, there is a host of physical and genetic mechanisms to promote or prevent self fertilization, as well as limiting sex between different species. All of this is aimed at ensuring a next generation of plants, and the one after that, and so on.

Plants attract a host of pollinators: visiting insects such as bees and moths, even some nectar-feeding marsupials and bats. I watched a remarkable sequence on David Attenborough’s latest blockbuster series, A Perfect Planet a few nights ago, about the fascinating pollination role of fig wasps.

Then I came across this tweet. Cockroaches of all creatures!

Wind pollination is a common feature of many grasses. However, several wheat and rice species, for example, promiscuously dangle their stamens apparently seeking cross fertilization. But they have often self fertilized before their flowers open. That’s not to deny that some cross pollination does occur in these species, but it’s generally the exception.

Some plants appear to reproduce sexually, but they have got around actual sex through a mechanism known as apomixis. These plants produce seeds but not following the normal fertilization process, so each seedling is a genetic copy of the ‘mother’ plant.

Berries on a diploid potato species, Solanum berthaultii

Other species have given up sex (almost) altogether, instead reproducing vegetatively with the ‘offspring’ being genetically identical (or essentially identical) to the mother plant. In others, like the potato, propagation is primarily through tubers. Yet, in the Andes especially where potatoes were first domesticated, many varieties are extremely sexually fertile, and produce berries rather like small tomatoes, although they are inedible. They contain lots of small seeds that we often refer to as true potato seed or TPS. In fact, in one experiment I observed at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru where I worked during the 1970s, a colleague of mine recorded a particular variety known as Renacimiento producing more than 20 t/ha of berries, in addition to about 20 t of tubers.


Anyway, I digress somewhat. During the years I was active scientifically (before I joined the ranks of senior management at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, IRRI in the Philippines), I looked into various aspects of reproductive biology of several species.

In my doctoral research, carried out in the Andes of Peru, I investigated the breeding relationships between potato varieties with different numbers of chromosomes. The potato we consume almost on a daily basis (at least in my home) is known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, and has four sets (48 in total) of chromosomes. It is what we call a tetraploid. Many other potato species have only two sets or 24 chromosomes, and are known as diploids. The tetraploid forms are mostly self fertile; diploids, on the other hand, have a genetic system of self incompatibility, and will only produce seeds if pollinated with pollen from a different genetic type.

This or similar system of self incompatibility is known from other species, like poppies for example. Anyway, the outcome is that ‘self’ pollen will not germinate on the stigma. The two images below (of various pollinations among wild potatoes), show a typical compatible pollination and fertilization event. Lots of pollen grains have stuck to the stigma, have germinated and grown the length of the style to reach the numerous ovules in the ovary.

In these next images, showing incompatible pollinations, few pollen grains remain on the stigma, not all germinated, and those that did, grew erratically. A few pollen tubes may reach the ovules but compared to the compatible pollinations, they are many fewer.


In the 1970s, one of my colleagues at CIP, Chilean breeder/agronomist Primo Accatino, championed the use of TPS as an alternative to propagation from seed tubers. One of the weak links, as it were, in any potato production cycle is the availability and cost of disease-free seed tubers. So TPS was seen as potentially fulfilling a gap in many developing countries that had neither the infrastructure nor staff to support seed potato production.

As I mentioned earlier, the common potato is a tetraploid with four sets of chromosomes, and this complicates the genetics and breeding. Breeding at the diploid level could be more straightforward. At least that was the hope and the challenge when I embarked on a project to produce TPS lines through inbreeding diploid potatoes and single seed descent. Funded by the British government, it involved scientists at the University of Birmingham (where I had joined the staff in 1981), the former Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge, and CIP in Peru.

Was this just a pipe dream? Perhaps. Before developing the project concept, I’d had extensive discussions with my colleague at Birmingham, geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence who worked on self incompatibility in poppies (that has a similar genetic system to that in potatoes). His experience with poppies showed that if one tried long and hard enough, it was possible to break the self incompatibility.

Flowers of Solanum chacoense

We tried—and ultimately failed—closing the project after five years. We decided it would take just too much investment to make progress. If only we’d had available then what are now helping to transform potato breeding: self compatible diploid lines. At the end of the 1990s, scientists working at the USDA potato collection in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin identified self compatible lines in the widespread wild species Solanum chacoense. The Sli gene that confers self compatibility is apparently more widespread than previously thought, and has now been bred into diploid lines. Had we had those self compatible lines back in the 1980s, our work would have perhaps have reached a better conclusion.


When I moved to the Philippines in 1991 to head IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), I had a collection of around 100,000 different lines of rice, cultivated and wild, to conserve in the institute’s International Rice Genebank.

With my colleagues in GRC, Dr Lu Bao-Rong, Amita ‘Amy’ Juliano and Dr Ma Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, I spent several years investigating the breeding relationships between the cultivated forms of rice, Oryza sativa from Asia, and O. glaberrima from West Africa, and the closest wild Oryza species with a similar AA genome. We made thousands of crosses with the aim of understanding not only the breeding relationships, which is important to be able to better use wild species in rice breeding, but also to understand the taxonomy of wild and cultivated rices.

Pollinations (L) in the genebank screenhouse among AA genome species from Asia, Australia, and the New World, and (R) a crossing polygon from those pollinations expressed in terms of spikelet fertility.

This work led to several scientific publications, which you can access here: just look for publications with our names.


Another aspect of plant sex, important for genebank managers, is how the environment can affect plant fertility. While the seeds of many species (including rice and potatoes) can be stored at a low temperature (typically -18ºC) and for decades if not longer, it is essential that only the best seeds are placed in a genebank for long term conservation. That means ensuring that the growing conditions are the best possible to produce seeds of high quality—and in abundance—during an initial multiplication or later on for rejuvenation after some years of storage, if seed stocks are running low, or there are signs that seed viability may be declining.

At IRRI, in Los Baños south of Manila, we were faced with managing a large germplasm collection of rice lines from all over Asia, from Africa, and South America as well. And these had been collected over a very broad latitudinal range, while Los Baños sits at around 14ºN. We were attempting to grow in a single location many different rice lines, some of which had evolved under more temperate conditions, under different temperature regimes and daylengths.

Kameswara Rao

With my colleague Dr Kameswara Rao (and Professor Richard Ellis from the University of Reading, UK) we spent three years carefully analyzing the effects of different growing environments on seed quality for conservation. Just look for publications here under our names to check out what we achieved. The important changes we made to how we grew rice lines for optimum seed quality have endured until today, although (as I have reported elsewhere) changes to post-harvest handling of seeds have been improved through the work of former IRRI seed physiologist, Dr Fiona Hay.


So, as you can see, there are many different, and interesting, facets to plant sex. And as plant breeders and gene conservationists, we aim to exploit the idiosyncrasies of each species to produce more productive crop varieties or ensure the long term survival of varieties that no longer find favor with farmers, or wild species whose habitats are threatened through agricultural expansion, increasing urbanization, or climate change.


 

Thoughts from a neo-psephologist

Until now, I’ve never really been in favor of proportional representation in elections. But as I get older (though probably not a lot wiser) I’m coming round to the idea, and electoral reform in general (not only in the UK but elsewhere). The UK’s First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is no longer fit for purpose. It’s not as though we’ve never had a stab at proportional representation. Elections to the European Parliament were run in this way.

So what has brought about this Damascene experience? Well, you only have to examine the consequences of the 19 December 2019 General Election here in the UK or the recent presidential election in the USA to realise that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV). The current parliamentary makeup is not serving the people adequately here.

I’m surely not the only person who feels that the current Boris Johnson-led Conservative Government is the most inept, corrupt even, of any government they have had to live under. During my lifetime (I’m 72), the UK has had fifteen Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson served twice; there was a gap of almost four years between his first administration ending in June 1970, and returning to power in March 1974), eleven were Oxford educated, one at Edinburgh, and the other three (including Sir Winston Churchill) did not go to university.

Without a shadow of a doubt, in my opinion, classics scholar (a term I deploy advisedly) Boris Johnson is in a league of his own as perhaps the worst Prime Minister of the lot. I admit that my Twitter feed is full of tweets from like-minded individuals. And cronyism is definitely on the rise during this Covid-19 pandemic, as analysis of the award of contracts, for example, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) has clearly indicated. What I find hard to understand is why Johnson isn’t doing worse in the polls.

Opposition parties in Parliament are there to hold the government of the day to account. But with an overall majority of more than 80, this Tory government is essentially unassailable. Yes, it has had a few wobbles when Eurosceptic Tories have voted against their own party. But with Brexit [1] out of the way, so to speak, Johnson and his cohorts essentially have unlimited licence over the next four years until the next mandated General Election to do whatever they like. And we should all be worried about that.

Taking the UK out of the European Union has already eroded a number of significant rights and privileges that membership gave all citizens of the UK. I simply don’t trust Johnson to legislate for the greater good.

So, let’s look at the last General Election.

Voter turnout was greater than 67% (of a registered electorate of more than 47.5 million). I don’t claim to have access to a significant amount of data or to be anything like an expert. These are just some of my observations that reflect my concerns about electoral reform.

Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives won 365, on a 43.6% share of the votes cast.

That means that more than 56% of the voting public supported parties other than the Conservatives. Labour’s share was 32.1%, giving them only 202 seats. The next biggest party (with just 3.9% of the national vote) was the Scottish National Party (SNP) with 48 seats, all in Scotland of course. Scotland is now an SNP monopoly after winning just a 45% share of the votes across the 59 Scottish constituencies. The Greens attracted 2.7% of the national vote but gained just a single seat. As for the Liberal Democrats, the situation was even more dire: 11.6% share of the votes resulting in only 11 seats in Parliament. No wonder the Lib Dems have long advocated a change to proportional representation.

If seats were allocated based on their share of the vote, the Conservatives would have just 283, Labour 208, and the Lib Dems, 75. I voted Lib Dem at the last election, but it was essentially a wasted vote, as would have been a vote for the Labour candidate in my constituency at the time, Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, that was retained by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, who retained his seat with a slightly increased share of the votes cast, at 63.4%.

Now in constituencies that have long enjoyed domination by one party or another, such as Conservative Bromsgrove for example or Labour-held Knowsley on Merseyside (with an almost 40,000 majority, >80% of votes cast), proportional representation is hardly likely to change that sort of result. However, where the number of votes cast per candidate is more evenly spread, and where the FPTP winner actually has a minority share of the vote, then proportional representation is going to have a much more significant effect.

How the constituencies could be re-designated to better reflect current demographics I’ll leave to others better qualified to propose. But I do believe that ‘voting areas’ should be larger than the current constituencies, say counties with each’county’ returning the same number of MPs as they do in total now. But for each there could be a slate of candidates, and the seats would be allocated by the total number of votes cast per political party (similar to how the MEP elections were held in the past). There needs to be a thorough discussion about the actual system of proportional representation, and I’m not qualified to comment on that particular aspect.

I do feel strongly that we need a House of Commons that better reflects how the UK population votes. FPTP does not do that, and given the increasing polarization in political stances and viewpoints, I think we need a more nuanced approach to policy development and implementation. Yes, I appreciate that proportional representation is likely to lead to more coalition governments. Is that such a bad thing? I personally think that the Lib Dems were right to go into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 General Election. I don’t think they had much choice given that the country was trying to rebuild itself following the 2008/2009 financial crash.

Northern Ireland First Minister (of the DUP) Arlene Foster and then Prime Minister Theresa May after the June 2017 election.

Coalitions do come with disadvantages, however as seen in some countries that take months to form new coalition governments. Small (and maybe even extreme) parties can hold the balance. Take the religious parties in Israel, or more recently in the UK where the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) entered into a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Conservatives following the 2017 General Election that saw then Prime Minister Theresa May lose her majority, and therefore needed the backing of a ‘friendly’ party to keep Corbyn’s Labour at bay.

Given the current state of politics in the UK I believe the call for electoral reform will become a clamour in the not-too-distant future. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.


Let me turn my attention to what’s been happening on the other side of the Atlantic.

Can you imagine that American politics would ever come to this? An incumbent President defeated decisively in a general election then, even more than two months on, not accepting that defeat, and going as far as trying to subvert the outcome.

From my UK perspective, the USA seems to have a crazier electoral system than we ‘enjoy’ over here. A House of Representatives that is elected every two years (with all the financial dangers of corruption to remain in power), gerrymandering across the country (especially in Republican-held districts), the billions of dollars that are raised and spent on political campaigns, and an election of the President every four years that does not take account directly of the popular vote.

Given the role of the Electoral College, election campaigns will always focus primarily on those so-called battleground states that ultimately give the winning candidate the 270 votes needed in the Electoral College to win the race.

Let’s look at the results of the 2016 General Election in the US, won by Trump in the Electoral College by 304 votes to 227, even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 2.9 million votes.

Here is a series of maps that show the 2016 FPTP election results for President, county by county. It’s a sea of Republican red, right across the country, but with significant Democrat concentrations on the East and West Coasts, and some parts of the Mid-West.

But does that map reflect the distribution of party allegiances? Since the USA is essentially a two party nation, Republicans and Democrats, it’s straight forward to provide a rather more nuanced visualization of how everyone voted, with shades of purple reflecting the proportion of votes for each party. (This sort of map would be harder to compile for UK election results, since there were nine parties contesting the 2019 election, albeit some were regional parties like the SNP or DUP).

Even better perhaps is the same map, county by county, that shows the votes based on population, as its author stated: ‘Land doesn’t vote. People do.’ Check the visualization here. The Republican Party is primarily rural, and in those states and counties with  rather low population densities.

It’s incredible that two months on from last November’s election, which Joe Biden won with 51.4% of the popular vote (and a margin of more than 7 million votes) that Trump is still trying to game the system. Perhaps even more incredible that Trump himself won more than 74 million votes. A country divided!

This result gave Biden 306 votes to Trump’s 232. And, since he hates losers, Trump just cannot accept that he lost the election. And keeps ranting on about it.

The Electoral College does, in the 21st century, seem an anachronism. If the votes for Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), Pennsylvania (20), and Georgia (16) are discounted, then Biden and Trump would have essentially the same number of college votes, 233 to 232. No wonder Trump is futilely trying to overturn the results from these states. If just over half of the people that voted for Biden in these five states had voted the other way, Trump would remain President. That means the election was essentially determined on just under 140,000 votes. From a popular vote of over 155 million (the highest turnout in over a century), to have an election resolved by less than 0.1% of those who voted seems a shaky basis for electing someone to ostensibly the most powerful office in the world.

Trump can cry foul at every turn, that the election was stolen from him, that the Democrats cheated, the election was a fraud. Funny how fraud only occurred in states that the Democrats won. This had crossed my mind several times. Today I saw it articulated publicly. Not sure who this is. I recognise the face but can’t put a name to it. I’m sure someone will enlighten me.

We think that Johnson and his pals have brought the UK into disrepute with their handling of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Media in the EU are openly mocking this government. In the same vein, Donald Trump has eroded respect for the USA globally. Although I’m not sure the MAGA Trumpists see it that way. Poor misguided fools . . .


[1] The 2016 Brexit referendum was won by the Leave campaign on 52% of the votes cast (but only 37% of the electorate). The FPTP system really failed us on this occasion, in my opinion. For something that had such constitutional, financial, social, and political consequences the referendum rules should have been tighter. I have long argued that not only should there be a minimum turnout (it was actually quite high at 72%), but that the winning margin needed to be 50% +1 of the persons eligible to vote, not those that actually voted. We have been forced to leave the European Union on the whims of less than 40% of the electorate, a substantial number of whom now say they regret having voted that way knowing now what they didn’t then, when they were promised ‘unicorns’ and ‘sunlit uplands’.


 

There is no way you can deny it . . .

It was July 1979. I was in Santiago de Chile for a few days, as a member of a three person team from the International Potato Center (CIP) to undertake a short review of the Chilean National Potato Program.

Joining me were my Lima-based colleagues, potato breeder Dr Nelson Estrada (a Colombian national) and Regional Representative for South America, Dr Oscar Malamud (from Argentina). I’d flown in from Costa Rica where I was leading CIP’s Regional Program for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at the time..

It was a chilly evening, maybe 5ºC, mid-winter in Chile; Santiago lies at 33ºS. Street vendors were roasting chestnuts on open fires. We were out and about doing some tourist shopping (in my case) or buying beef to carry back to Lima (Nelson and Oscar) in spare suitcases, as there was a meat shortage and rationing in Peru in those days.

Then, as I wondered among the shops and market stalls, I heard this song floating over the hubbub of the street:

Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong
You’re enchained by your own sorrow
In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow
How I hate to see you like this
There is no way you can deny it
I can see that you’re oh so sad, so quiet

It was ABBA, of course, and this song, Chiquitita, immediately had an impact on me. It was released as the first single from their album Voulez-Vous in January that year. But I’d not heard it until then.

Here are ABBA performing (but lip-synching) the song at the Music for UNICEF Concert that same year, after which the group donated half of the royalties to UNICEF. Being one of ABBA’s most successful recordings, those royalties must have been quite significant.

I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t really been much aware of ABBA before encountering them on that Santiago street, so to speak. I was living in Peru in 1974 when they won the Eurovision Song Contest, with Waterloo. And, never having been a Eurovision fan, and because it didn’t figure in any news that I heard in Lima, their win passed me by. Neither was glam rock my thing. I came late to the ABBA party.

Anyway, after my Chiquitita experience, I went out and purchased a vinyl copy of Voulez-Vous the next time I passed through Miami, and thereafter enjoyed dancing around the living room back home in Costa Rica with my young daughter Hannah (then approaching two) to the many excellent songs that featured on that album, such as I Have A Dream, Angeleyes, Does Your Mother Know, and Kisses of Fire.

It wasn’t until I returned to the UK in 1981 that I really became an signed-up ABBA fan, and got hold of cassette tapes of some of their albums like Arrival (later replaced by CDs of Gold and Greatest Hits Vol. 2 when I moved to the Philippines in 1991).

In early 1982, I accompanied a group of my MSc students in plant genetic resources conservation on a two week course in Israel offered by Professors Gideon Ladizinsky and Amos Dinoor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Rehovot near Tel Aviv. I’d taken several cassettes of music to enjoy during the various field trips, and my ABBA tapes were among those. I distinctly remember one of the Birmingham group, a Polish PhD student pulling my leg about my enthusiasm for ABBA’s music. But she did reluctantly have to agree that their music was quite special.

The wonderful melodies and arrangements composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the beautiful voices and harmonies between Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Just a winning combination all round. So many hits. It’s no wonder that Mamma Mia! was such a hit show (I loved the film—don’t tell anyone; I watched it twice on one Emirates flight back to Manila not long after it was released in 2008).

However, having set up Spotify the other day to play through my Amazon Echo Dot and a Bluetooth speaker, I came across the entire ABBA catalogue, and decided to shuffle play the lot. And that’s when I realised that besides the many glorious songs that ABBA released, there were just as many (maybe more), and especially the early tracks, that are simply naff. Awful. I was really rather surprised. It’s no wonder these don’t get too many plays. So let’s forget about those and luxuriate in the many catchy and incredibly well-crafted songs that are their greatest hits.

So I suppose I have to tell you what my favorite ABBA song is. So many to choose from. But the one I keep coming back to is . . . drum roll:

It was released on The Visitors album in 1981.


 

What should I call you?

A Twitter thread caught my attention a couple of days back, about whether doctors should ever use a patient’s first name without asking permission to do so.

Dr Conor Maguire

It was by Dr Conor Maguire, a Consultant Physician in Medicine for the Elderly, at the Western General Hospital, Edinburgh as well as Vice President (International) and Director of Education at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. He is dead set against using first names without permission, and explains why in the thread that you can read here.

How to address someone (certainly on first acquaintance) is something I’ve had to contend with throughout my working life. In my youth (I’m now in my early 70s) I was taught that it was impolite to use someone’s first name without their express permission. Indeed it was severely frowned on. Quite the wrong etiquette. I never called my parents’ friends by their first names. It’s different today; the younger generation is so much more relaxed about this sort of thing. Yet I still feel uncomfortable when I hear that. It’s also quite common nowadays to be addressed by one’s first name when using a utility helpline, for instance. It certainly grates with me when the young person on the end of the phone immediately addresses me as ‘Michael’. I mostly let it go; no point in having a row when you’re trying to sort out a difficulty with a bill or the like. Occasionally I have been asked by the person I’m talking to could use my name. And I almost always say yes. They’re being polite in asking.

I should add that hardly anyone calls me ‘Michael’, always ‘Mike’. I think my Mum only ever used ‘Michael’ when she really wanted to attract my attention. Uh oh, I must be in trouble, especially when ‘Michael’ was pronounced as a rising inflection, Aussie-style.


My first job at age 24 (in January 1973) was overseas in Peru with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, whose Director General, Richard Sawyer, was an American, as were several other senior members of staff.

Americans are much more relaxed about using first names, even on first acquaintance, but it took me some months before I felt at ease doing so. I don’t think I got round to calling the DG by his first name for at least a couple of years. However, I slowly came to realise that if I met someone, shook hands, and they introduced themselves by their first name, this was a tacit invitation for me to use it, and vice versa.

However, working in a multicultural institution like CIP (and later on at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, in the Philippines) it was important to be aware of different cultural norms, and that such first name familiarity is not always practiced nor welcome. At CIP there was a senior nematologist, a German named Dr Rolf Schaeffer. He must have been at least twice my age. But during the two or so years we worked alongside each other, he never ever used my first name, always addressing me as ‘Mr Jackson’!

In Asia, elders (but not necessarily one’s betters) are treated with much more respect generally than I have ever seen in the UK for example. There are many age-based honorifics in many societies. When I first joined IRRI in 1991, I found it odd that my Filipino staff always addressed me as ‘Sir’. Try as I might to get them to use my name, I eventually gave up and accepted that, for them, ‘Sir’ was a much more comfortable way to address me. However, as time passed, some of the more senior Filipino staff did ‘relax’ and call me ‘Mike’. But if they didn’t want to, that was fine as well.

DPPC staff enjoying a Christmas get-together in 2004.

When, in 2001, I was asked to develop a new Office for Program Planning and Communications, I assembled a small team of professionals to help me deliver its mandate. And, in this instance, I insisted that everyone use my first name, not ‘Sir’ or ‘Dr Jackson’. Funnily enough, there was no hesitation on their part, although one of them generally just called me ‘Boss’. After all we were a small team, working cheek by jowl, and relying on each other day in, day out.


In primary and secondary school my teachers were always ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Mr’. And when I went to university in 1967, we always, always addressed staff by their title, ‘Dr This’ or ‘Professor That’.

However, when I began graduate school at Birmingham in 1970, we affectionately addressed the head of department as ‘Prof’, rarely Professor Hawkes (unless we were referring to him when speaking to someone else), but never ‘Jack’. Yet the barriers were beginning to break down with one or two of the younger members of staff who encouraged the use of their first names. Even so, given my Britishness, I found it quite difficult, awkward even, to use a first name.

Dr Jill Biden, future FLOTUS

This issue of first name use, and titles, is actually quite topical under the circumstances, given the hoo-ha following the publication of an outrageous opinion piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 11 December last about First Lady-elect Dr Jill Biden’s use of her ‘Dr’ title (she holds an Ed.D. degree from University of Delaware).

Written by 83 year old writer Joseph Epstein, a former adjunct faculty member of the English Department at Northwestern University, and titled Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D., who questioned Dr Biden’s right to and use of her doctorate title. He even suggested that ‘Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.’ Not only that, he even called her ‘kiddo’. How disrespectful was that?

A you can imagine, this op-ed has attracted a whole lot of attention, ire, and even derision. It has been condemned by former colleagues at Northwestern. And in another opinion piece a few days later in The Atlantic, staff writer Graeme Wood wrote that use of her title was a choice for Dr Biden alone. There followed an outcry on Twitter condemning Epstein’s misogynistic comments, and in support of the future First Lady.

But I guess this begs the bigger question of whether academic titles should be used outside the academic environment. Most medical doctors in the UK do not hold a medical doctorate, generally just bachelor degrees. They use ‘Dr’ as a courtesy title. Likewise some dentists. At my former dental practice in Bromsgrove, the two partners both listed themselves as ‘Dr’ on the practice website, even though they only had a Bachelor of Dental Surgery degree. The MD degree is the norm in the USA.

So, should non-medics use their title? Why not? We’ve earned it after several years of hard slog, completed the requirements for the degree, and were awarded a doctorate by an accredited institution. I use my title, but if others prefer to call me ‘Mr’ that’s fine as well. Let’s not get hung up about this. I also use, on occasion, my OBE that was conferred by HM The Queen in 2012.

But let me get one thing straight. It’s all about respect, and sensitivity to all the different cultural norms we are exposed to daily. What is fine in one culture is almost taboo in another. Never assume that someone wants you to use their first name, or not use a well-earned title. Restraint is the watchword, until the signal is given to proceed to a more informal relationship.


 

Of mythical beasts and Pre-Raphaelites

In July 2013, during one of our regular trips to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast England to visit our younger daughter Philippa and her family, we headed out into the Northumberland countryside to the National Trust’s Wallington, a late 17th century house west of Morpeth (map).

Since we moved to Newcastle a couple of months ago, we have taken advantage of many fine days to get out and about. And last Monday (14 December) we headed to Wallington once again. After a welcome cup of Americano, we enjoyed a walk of just under four miles around the grounds. The house was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, like most if not all National Trust properties nationwide.


Sir William Blackett (c.1657-1705), by Enoch Seeman the younger; National Trust, Wallington

The Wallington estate was purchased in 1688 by Sir William Blackett (1657-1705) who came from a prosperous Newcastle mining and shipping family. He demolished the existing Fenwick family tower on the site (parts of which can still be seen apparently, in the basement), and Wallington became a country retreat. It underwent further developments, gaining its Palladian facade in the 18th century.

In 1777, Wallington passed to the Trevelyan family who continued to reside there until 1941. Then the 3rd Baronet (of the second, Wallington creation of 1874), Sir Charles Trevelyan, gave Wallington to the National Trust and, in the process, disinheriting his eldest son George (the 4th Baronet). [1]


Approaching Wallington, there are two features which stand out. In the valley below the house the River Wansbeck flows eastwards towards the North Sea. There is a beautifully constructed hump-back bridge over the Wansbeck, which from its architecture must date from around the time that Wallington was redeveloped in the 18th century.

The second feature, and close to the house on a lawn overlooking the approaching road B6342, is a group of four stone dragon heads (or some other mythical creature, perhaps griffins), lined up and glaring (or grinning—take your pick) over the Northumberland countryside.

They were brought to Wallington in the 1730s as ballast in one of Sir Walter Calverley-Blackett‘s ships. Presumably he was shipping coal to the capital. Anyway, from what I have been able to discover, these dragon heads came from Bishopsgate in London after it was demolished to make way for the increase in London traffic. They have been in their current location since 1928.


Like many country houses, Wallington has its fair share of treasures displayed by the National Trust in the many rooms, which we enjoyed during our 2013 visit.

But, for me, the pièce de résistance is the central hall, once an open courtyard that was enclosed (at the insistence of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founding member John Ruskin) by Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, wife of the 6th Baron Trevelyan of Nettlecombe, Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan (a renowned naturalist and geologist) who bequeathed Wallington to his cousin, Sir Charles Trevelyan (created the 1st Baron Trevelyan of Wallington in 1874).

From this satellite image from Google maps you can see the original layout of the house, and the enclosed central courtyard.

Wallington became a retreat for the Pre-Raphaelites, one of whom, William Bell Scott, a Newcastle painter and poet, was commissioned to decorate the central hall with a series of exquisite murals depicting scenes from Northumbrian history and folklore (and often incorporating local personalities into these). I recently wrote a separate piece about Scott.

I shall enjoy returning to Wallington as soon as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and it’s once again safe to make such visits inside (and after receiving one of the vaccines).


But there’s so much more to see and appreciate at Wallington, since the woods, garden, and park are quite extensive. Last week we re-explored the East Wood and ponds, and the walled garden, before heading down to the Wansbeck which could not be crossed at the stepping stones due to the high water level.

We didn’t complete the full river walk, heading back up the B6342 from the bridge back to the house, and then into the woods on the west side of the house.

The south front of the house is protected by a rather impressive ha-ha – somewhat more formidable than others we have seen at the likes of Hanbury Hall (in Worcestershire close to our former home in Bromsgrove) and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, for example.

The walled garden, some minutes walk from the house was splendid during our July visit, but had bedded down for its winter sleep a few days ago. Surrounded by red brick walls, mirroring an even more impressive wall just outside the garden and overlooking the garden pond, it never ceases to amaze me just how much these landowners and would-be aristocrats spent on improving their properties.

Because Steph and I are retired, we can take advantage of good weather (and sometimes not so good) to drop everything and head off to glorious properties like Wallington. And although there are perhaps fewer owned by the National Trust here in the northeast, we shall just have to travel a little further afield and visit those parts of northern England that we have not yet had chance to explore more fully yet. Added to the properties of English Heritage, we will have more than enough to fill our retirement for several years to come.


[1] In summer 1966 (or maybe late Spring 1967) I met Sir George Trevelyan at Attingham Park near Shrewsbury, when I attended a weekend course on the reclamation and botanical rehabilitation of industrial waste sites. Sir George was, for many years, the warden of the Adult Education College at Attingham Park, which is now owned and managed by the National Trust, and has been considerably restored internally and externally since the late 1960s.


 

I was doctored . . . but the benefits were long-lasting

Philosophiae Doctor. Doctor of Philosophy. PhD. Or DPhil in some universities like Oxford. Doctorate. Hard work. Long-term benefits.

Forty-five years ago today I was awarded a PhD by the University of Birmingham. As a freshman undergraduate at the University of Southampton in October 1967, I was naïvely ignorant of what a PhD was [1]. And I certainly never had any ambition then or inkling that one day I would go on to complete a doctorate in botany. Let alone a study on potatoes!

Although registered for my PhD at the University of Birmingham, I actually carried out much of the research while working as an Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. My thesis was supervised by eminent potato experts Professor Jack Hawkes, head of the Department of Botany (later Plant Biology) in the School of Biological Sciences at Birmingham, and Dr Roger Rowe, head of CIP’s Department of Breeding & Genetics.

Jack Hawkes (L) and Roger Rowe (R)

On 12 December 1975 I was joined at the Birmingham graduation ceremony or congregation by Jack and Dr Trevor Williams (on my left below, who supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils). Trevor later became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International). I’d turned 27 just a few weeks earlier, quite old in those days when it wasn’t all that unusual for someone to be awarded a PhD at 24 or 25, just three years after completing a bachelor’s degree. My research took four years however, from 1971, when I was awarded the MSc degree in genetic resources conservation at Birmingham.

The moment of being ‘doctored’ in the university’s Great Hall.

Sir Peter Scott, CH, CBE, DSC & Bar, FRS, FZS (by Clifton Ernest Pugh, 1924–1990)

As a biologist, it was particularly special that my degree was conferred by one of the most eminent naturalists and conservationists of his age, Sir Peter Scott (son of ill-fated Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott), who was Chancellor of the University of Birmingham for a decade from 1973.


According to the Birmingham PhD degree regulations today, a candidate must enter on a programme, normally of three years’ duration, in which the key activity is undertaking research, combined with appropriate training. Registered students must produce a thesis which makes an original contribution to knowledge, worthy of publication in whole or in part in a learned journal.

It was much the same back in the 1970s, except that we had eight years from first registration to submit a thesis. By the end of the 1980s this had already been reduced to four years.

Like the majority of PhD theses I guess, mine (The evolutionary significance of the triploid cultivated potato, Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk.) was a competent piece of original research, but nothing to write home about. However, I did fulfil the other important criterion for award of the degree as three scientific papers from my thesis research were later accepted for publication in Euphytica, an international journal of plant breeding:

  1. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783. PDF

  2. Jackson, MT, PR Rowe & JG Hawkes, 1978. Crossability relationships of Andean potato varieties of three ploidy levels. Euphytica 27, 541-551. PDF

  3. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113. PDF


It took me just over six weeks to write my thesis of about 150 pages. I achieved that by sticking to a well-defined daily schedule. I was under a tight time constraint.

Having returned from Peru at the beginning of May 1975, I still had a couple of things to wrap up: checking the chromosome numbers of some progeny from experimental crosses, then preparing all the hand drawn diagrams and maps (fortunately my cartographic skills from my geography undergraduate days at the University of Southampton placed me in good stead in this respect) and photographs. My thesis was typed on a manual typewriter; none of that fancy word processing and formatting available today. Nevertheless, I did submit my thesis by the mid-September deadline to meet the December graduation. I could hardly return to CIP by the beginning of the New Year without a PhD in my back pocket.

Looking at my thesis 45 years on, it does seem rather ‘thin’ compared to what PhD students can achieve today. In the early 1970s we didn’t have any of the molecular biology techniques that have become routine (essential even) today, to open up a whole new perspective on plant diversity, crop evolution, and crop domestication that were the basic elements of my thesis research.

Back in the day, it was normal for a PhD thesis to be examined by just one external examiner and an internal university one, usually from a candidate’s department and often the person who had supervised the research. Today the supervisor cannot be the internal examiner at many if not all universities in the UK, and it has become more common for a PhD student to have a committee to oversee the research.

So, towards the end of October 1975 I met with my examiners for what turned out to be a viva voce of over three hours. It got off to a good start because the external examiner told me he had enjoyed reading my thesis. That allowed me to relax somewhat, and we then embarked on an interesting discussion about the work, and potatoes and their evolution in general. The examiner found just one typographical error, and I corrected that immediately after the viva. I then sent the thesis for binding and official submission to the university library (where it languishes on a shelf somewhere, or maybe reduced to just a microfilm copy).


On the evening of my examination I rang my parents to tell them the good news, only to discover that my dad had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day. That certainly but a damper on the exhilaration I felt at having just passed my final exam – ever! Dad was resting, but expected to make a full recovery. By December, when the congregation was held, he was back on his feet, and he and mum attended the congregation. Having been allocated only two guest tickets, Steph gave hers up so mum and dad could attend.

They gave me a Parker fountain pen, engraved with my name and date, as a graduation present. I still have it.


So, I completed a PhD. Was it worth it? I actually waxed lyrical on that topic in a blog post published in October 2015. When the idea of working in Peru was first mooted in February 1971, it was intended to be just a one year assignment from September. Registering for a PhD was not part of the equation. But circumstances changed, my departure to Peru was delayed until January 1973, so Jack registered me for a PhD, setting me on a path that I have never regretted.

In any case, once I was established at CIP in Lima, I quickly came to the viewpoint that a career in international agricultural research was something I wanted to pursue. And without a PhD under my belt that would have been almost impossible. The PhD degree became a sort of ‘union card’, which permitted me to work subsequently in Central America, as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham for a decade, and almost 19 years up to my retirement in 2010 at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in roles managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, and then as one of the institute’s senior management team.


[1] Unlike our two daughters Hannah and Philippa. They grew up in a home with parents having graduate degrees (Steph has an MSc degree in genetic resources from Birmingham). And when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, almost every neighbor of ours at IRRI Staff Housing had a PhD degree. So although it was never inevitable, both went on to complete a PhD in psychology (although different branches of the discipline) in 2006 and 2010 respectively, at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

L (top and bottom): Phil, Hannah, and Steph after the graduation ceremony; Hannah with her cohort of graduands, Emily and Michael in Industrial & Organizational Psychology on 12 May 2006. R (top and bottom): Phil’s graduation at Northumbria University on 11 December 2010.

Memories of Christmas past . . . and building new ones

Perhaps nothing awakens memories filed at the back of the ol’ grey matter like decorating a Christmas tree each year. And Sunday last we finished decorating ours, for our first Christmas in Newcastle upon Tyne, having moved here from Worcestershire just over two months ago.

We’ve had this particular (artificial) tree for 44 years. After we moved to Costa Rica in April 1976, we bought this tree from Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Miami as part of our airfreight consignment.

Our elder daughter Hannah was born in Costa Rica  in April 1978, and we had great fun decorating the tree for her. I’m sure we must have some photos taken during those days, but they must be packed away in boxes waiting for a move early next year into the house we are buying. And I hadn’t scanned those yet. Likewise of our younger daughter Philippa who was born in May 1982.

However, here is one photo taken at Christmas 1981 in the UK (when Hannah would have been just over 3½ and Steph was pregnant with Philippa; we replaced those curtains and carpet that came with the house not long afterwards!). During the 80s we spent at least two Christmases with Steph’s parents in Essex, and on another two we joined family (including my widowed mother) at my brother Martin’s home in Gloucestershire, and with my sister in Newport in South Wales in 1986. This was a big family get-together as my late brother Edgar and his wife Linda (and young son Patrick) came over from Canada.

L-R Back row: Brother-in-law Trevor, Mum, Steph; middle row: sister-in-law Linda, nephew Alex, Martin, nephew Bruce, Margaret; front row: sister-in-law Pauline, Edgar (with Patrick on his knee), me, Philippa, and Hannah.


We enjoyed decorating our little tree from Costa Rica every Christmas until 1991. In July that year, I moved to the Philippines. Steph, Hannah and Philippa (then aged 13 and 9) celebrated Christmas in the UK on their own, then packed everything away, locked up the house, and flew out to join me in the Philippines a few days afterwards. The tree remained packed away for the next 18 years.

But come December 2010 (after I had retired and we moved back to the UK), we ‘rescued’ our tree from obscurity in the attic. Newly-married Philippa and Andi joined us in Bromsgrove, almost a ‘White Christmas’; there was snow lying in the garden but it didn’t actually snow on Christmas Day (to qualify as a ‘White Christmas’). In fact, throughout my whole life I can remember only one ‘White Christmas’; more of that later.

The last Christmas Day we spent in Bromsgrove was in 2017, because in 2018 and 2019 we were with Phil and Andi—and the grandchildren Elvis and Felix—in Newcastle. Having grandchildren around certainly brings a new dimension to celebrating Christmas. Unfortunately we’ve not yet had an opportunity to celebrate Christmas with our other grandchildren, Callum and Zoë in Minnesota, but we always link up on a video call and become immersed in their excitement as they open presents.


We spent almost 19 years in the Philippines. Filipinos know how to celebrate Christmas, beginning in September (the first of the ‘ber’ months) and often continuing well into February. It’s trees and lights and glitter everywhere. And their special Christmas lights, the parols.

We took one back to the UK in 2010 and proudly displayed it in our porch (probably the only one in Bromsgrove!) every year until it finally gave up its electrical ghost around three years ago. Just seeing it light up brought back memories of so many happy years spent in the Philippines, and the wonderful friends we made.

Now while Filipinos celebrate Christmas in a BIG way—Santa, snow, trees and the like—the Philippines reality is quite different. For me, it was shorts and t-shirts on Christmas Day, even if smarter ones than usual. Even after they had gone away to university in the USA and the UK, Hannah and Philippa returned most Christmases (and we’d even go scuba diving). Hannah’s boyfriend (now husband) Michael came on two occasions as well. Given the size of our IRRI house, we had space for a much taller (almost 7 foot) tree than we could ever accommodate in England. And we still have many of the decorations that we acquired in the Philippines.


One of my important roles during the 2000s, was being Santa for the Staff Housing children and friends at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños.


In 2007, I thought it might be a good idea to spend Christmas with Hannah and Michael in St Paul, Minnesota. Before doing anything else, I checked if seats were available for the Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) flight on the Northwest Airlines on Christmas Eve, and made reservations. Only then did I ask Hannah if we could visit, provided that Steph was up to the idea. Hannah thought that would be a great idea. So then I asked Steph if she would like to spend Christmas in Minnesota, provided of course that Hannah and Michael agreed. No-one knew I’d already made reservations. It took Steph a couple of days to warm to the idea (she’s not over-fond of intercontinental flights), but at last everything was in place and I confirmed the tickets.

We flew out of Manila on an early morning flight to MSP via Tokyo’s Narita airport, and arrived at our destination just before midday on the same day (Minnesota is 14 hours behind the Philippines).

It was cold, many degrees below 0ºC. A major snow storm had passed through just a few hours before our arrival, but the main highways had already been cleared. We headed straight to the Mall of America to buy some warm clothes for Steph. Since I had to travel in the course of my work with IRRI, and in all seasons, I already had suitable clothing.

There was deep snow everywhere, and as we sat down to eat our Christmas lunch at about 3pm on Christmas Day, it began to snow. My first ‘White Christmas’. We just had to go outside and enjoy the moment.

We had a great time with Hannah and Michael. Phil even joined us by video link from the UK. Seven days passed all too quickly and before we knew it we were on the return flight to Manila, from the frozen North to the heat of the tropics in less than 24 hours.


I was born in Congleton in southeast Cheshire in November 1948. I don’t really remember anything about Christmases (or winters) spent in Congleton, except the communal sledging in the snow that children from the neighbourhood enjoyed in Priesty Fields close by to where we lived in Moody Street. We moved to Leek, 12 miles away, in Staffordshire in April 1956 when I was seven.

Family Christmases with Mum and Dad, and my elder brothers Martin and Edgar, and sister Margaret were enjoyable as far as I recall. Mum and Dad were very hospitable and there always seemed to one group of friends or another spending time with us.

Dad had his own photographic business that provided a sufficient income to keep us fed and clothed. I never recall having to do without, but I now know that things were very tight and difficult financially for my parents for many years.

But as you can see from these photos, we did have fun.

And there were always a few presents. Among my favorites were a toy farm and the beginnings of a collection of plastic farm animals. I played with those for hours. It was never given away after I grew up and left home. So, in 1981, it came back home to me and was enjoyed by Hannah and Philippa. In fact, it was only last Christmas that I decided to give it away, and advertised it on the Bromsgrove Freecycle site. Within an hour it had been ‘claimed’ by someone who wanted a present for her younger sister. It’s good to know that another generation is enjoying it.

Then, one year I asked for a globe just like the one shown in this photo. It must have been the late 50s or early 60s. I kept that globe until 2010. I’m not sure why now, but we took it to the Philippines, and it was used by the girls. I decided to give it away before returning to the UK.

Each Christmas, we lived in hope of one special present each. A comic Annual. My brothers and I had a weekly subscription to the Eagle and Swift comics. I think Margaret had one for Girl. Anyway, each year, there would be an Eagle Annual and a Swift Annual waiting at the bottom of our beds. Who remembers Dan Dare? What a joy!

Rupert Bear Annual for 1960

And there was one more; Rupert Bear. Rupert first appeared as a cartoon strip in the British tabloid newspaper the Daily Express in November 1920, and continues a century on. Periodically we would receive one of the softback Rupert books, but we always looked forward as well to the Rupert Annual at Christmas, which has been published since 1936.

Such happy memories. And now that we have moved north to Newcastle, so many more opportunities to build plenty more as Elvis and Felix grow up. However, we will have to spend Christmas 2020 on our own even though the government will relax the Covid-19 restrictions for five days from Christmas Eve. We have decided to remain self-isolated. As I write this story, the first Covid vaccinations are being given in the UK. We can wait a few months more to make sure we are safe. It will be a virtual Christmas this year. But memorable, nevertheless.


 

Pandemic books – my 2020 reading list

2020 started where 2019 had ended – half way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-1872). That was a bit of a struggle in places, but I finally got there. And, on reflection, I did quite enjoy it.

Feeling at a loss as to what to turn to, I decided to quickly devour a couple of Arnold Bennett novels. Last year, I’d downloaded the ‘complete works’ to my Kindle.

First it was The Pretty Lady (1918) set at the outset of the First World War in 1914, and progressing through the war years as protagonist Gilbert (GJ) Hoade, a fiftyish bachelor of independent means, progresses in his relationship with French courtesan Christine who escaped to London from the German Army advancing on Ostend in Belgium.

Then it was back to the Five Towns at the end of January for The Price of Love (1914), a tale of lost money.

I finished that by mid-February, so decided to return to George Eliot and Daniel Deronda (1876). But I didn’t get very far. I’d been listening to some fine music on Classic FM one morning while lying in bed drinking my early morning cuppa, when I began to ask myself questions abut the development of music.

That got me into Howard Goodall‘s The Story of Music, that I finished at the beginning of April.

Then I decided to tackle the two books by Hilary Mantel about Tudor Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell that both won the Man Booker Prize (in 2009 and 2012, respectively): Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. In March she published the last part of her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light, but because of the library closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I wasn’t able to get hold of it. Until later in the year.

During the pandemic I had expected to read more. But by the beginning of May I’d run out of steam. So it took me almost two months to finish re-reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar. It was fascinating to understand something about perhaps the greatest Roman (often based on his own words, as he was a prolific writer, ever keen to make sure his place in history was secure). I bought this book around 2007, and first read it while I was working in the Philippines.

Here’s a review that appeared in The Independent when the book was first published in 2006. It’s not an easy read, and I found myself constantly confused by Roman names, as so many individuals had the same or similar name. I couldn’t help being reminded of the Biggus Dickus scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Anyway, during the first week of July as we were preparing to move to Newcastle upon Tyne once our house sale has completed, I decided to return to the novels of Thomas Hardy, which I had first enjoyed in the 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica. A re-run of the 2008 adaptation by David Nicholls of Tess of the D’Urbervilles was screened on BBC4, so I decided to tackle that novel first to see just how true to the original the screenwriter had stayed. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t find Tess as easy a read as I had imagined. Somehow, Tess just didn’t click with me this time round. Maybe it was because I had so much on my mind. During August and September things were becoming rather fraught with regard to our house sale and move. I wasn’t sleeping well at all. Feeling anxious and stressed all day, every day.

Anyway, I eventually finished Tess and on 30 September the sale of our house went through and we moved north. Settling into our new home (a rental for six months until we found a house to buy – which we have), we registered with the local North Tyneside library, just ten minutes from home. And there, on the new books shelf was Hilary Mantel’s magnum opus, and the last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light. Highly tipped to take the 2020 Booker Prize, The Mirror & the Light didn’t even make the shortlist.

Much as I enjoyed The Mirror & the Light, I don’t think it was the masterpiece that The Guardian reviewer Stephanie Merritt claimed. It was a long read, just over 900 pages. I think Hilary Mantel was being somewhat self-indulgent. She does have an accessible writing style, and although it took me over three weeks to finish, I almost never felt as if I was struggling with the text. It was only when she had her main protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, reminiscing in his own mind that the pace of the novel tapered off.

I finished The Mirror & the Light just before we went into our second national lockdown at the beginning of November, so I hurriedly returned it to the library, and searched for a couple of local histories. The first of these was Tyneside – A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, by Alistair Moffat and George Rosie, published in 2005 (and made into a TV documentary, which I haven’t seen).

This was an ambitious history of the Tyneside region over the past 10,000 years. Ambitious, indeed! But remarkably accessible, with usefully placed boxes which went into greater detail on aspects related to the main narrative. Often, boxes such as these can be a distraction from the narrative, pulling the reader from the points at hand. But the authors have cleverly drafted their text such that the narrative came to a sort of conclusion just before a box, and picked up again afterwards.

I certainly have a better appreciation of the origins and history of Newcastle, and look forward to exploring over the coming years, especially those relating to the Roman occupation of the region between AD43 and AD410.

Next, I picked up A Man Most Driven, by Peter Firstbrook, about ‘Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America’ in the early seventeenth century. Now, I’d heard about Captain Smith since I was a child. Just the other day I talking (via Zoom) about him and Pocahontas with my 8 year old grandaughter, Zoë, in Minnesota, just as I was getting into Firstbrook’s biography. Zoë had been reading all about Pocahontas for one of her remote schooling assignments, and reminded me that Pocahontas did not marry Captain Smith (as I actually believed), but another Englishman named John Rolfe.

A Man Most Driven is a fascinating story of a really driven man who, from his own (and very possibly exaggerated) accounts had certainly had some scrapes all before he was thirty, and lucky to escape with his life on more than one occasion. It also describes how close, and many times the Jamestown colony came to failure, and Smith’s role (from his own and some independent accounts) in ensuring the early survival.

Did Pocahontas (a daughter of the paramount chief of the Powhatan, named Wahunsenacawh) really save his life as Smith wrote in his The Generall Historie? She was just a young teenager when this happened just as Smith was about to have his brains bashed out by hostile Powhatan tribe members near the early Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia. After marrying John Rolfe, Pocahontas came to English and was presented to Queen Anne (wife of James I & VI). But she took sick before she could return to America and died (aged about 21) in Gravesend where she was buried. Unfortunately the site of her grave has been lost.

I then turned my attention to local Newcastle history once again, by former Northumberland county court judge and one-time MP for Newcastle Central from 1945-1951), Lyall Wilkes called Tyneside Portraits. It’s a short anthology of eight men who contributed to the artistic and cultural life of Newcastle since the seventeenth century, as well as its physical appearance through the buildings they designed and built. Among them was William Bell Scott, and Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet whose exquisite murals grace the walls of the central hall at Wallington Hall near Morpeth in Northumberland, a National Trust property we visited in August 2013.

This was the third and last book I had borrowed from the local library before the most recent pandemic lockdown and then Tier 3 restrictions locally. The library has not yet re-opened and I was unable to replace these books. So it was back to the Kindle and a touch of Rudyard Kipling once again: The Light That Failed, first published in January 1891 (his first novel, and not critically acclaimed).

With a number of things to occupy me during December (including my daily walk whenever the weather permits) I reckon The Light That Failed will see me through to the end of the month. I’ll include a summary in my 2021 reading list compilation a year from now.

So that’s another year’s reading accomplished. And what a year 2020 has been. Who could have imagined, as the clock was about to strike midnight on 31 December last, just what we would be facing in the coming months. We’ve made it through the pandemic so far, and having access to books, good music of every genre, and daily fresh air have been key to that achievement.

Keep safe. And let’s hope for a better 2021.


 

Donald’s legacy: impeached AND a loser!

Whatever he continues to wildly claim, Donald Trump’s tenure of the US presidency will come to an end at midday on Wednesday 20 January 2021. And the nightmare of the past four years that has blighted the lives of millions of Americans, and even more people around the world, will finally come to an end.

Donald Trump will be consigned to the history books, and hopefully we can begin to forget all about him. Although I fear he’s not going to go quietly, and it’s rumoured he will even try to stage a comeback in 2024.

But whatever transpires, there are two important aspects of his legacy that will forever be linked with the name of Donald J Trump: impeached (though not convicted) and loser! I’m sure he finds the latter especially galling, since this is something for which he has shown particular derision (such as his obnoxious statements about the late Arizona Senator John McCain¹ and other war veterans).

But there’s something about Trump’s character (among so many flaws) that sticks in my throat, and is typical of so many bullies. His demand for total respect while denigrating others, and above all, showing disrespect for the Office of President of the United States itself. Time and again he has shown just what an appalling human being he is. Just watch him slap down a reporter recently who asked a perfectly reasonable and appropriate question.

And while we are talking about losing, there’s a nice piece in today’s The Guardian here in the UK. I love this particular sentence: For a man obsessed with winning, Donald Trump is losing a lot.

So while Trump has the opportunity of causing a great deal of mischief—damage even—during his remaining days in office, we can all look forward to 20 January (we’ll be counting down to noon) when he will no longer be Cockwomble-in-Chief, just an also ran cockwomble.

Oh were it possible to get rid of his British counterpart Boris Johnson and his party of inept and seemingly corrupt Tories. We live in hope.


¹ Trump remained fixated on McCain, one of the few prominent Republicans to continue criticizing him after he won the nomination. When McCain died, in August 2018, Trump told his senior staff, according to three sources with direct knowledge of this event, ‘We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral,’ and he became furious, according to witnesses, when he saw flags lowered to half-staff. ‘What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser,’ the president told aides. From a September 2020 article in The Atlantic by editor Jeffrey Goldberg.

There were three persons in his marriage – William Bell Scott’s ménage à trois

I’ve just finished reading Tyneside Portraits, a 1971 book written by Lyall Wilkes (1914-1991), former MP (1945-1951) for Newcastle Central and a county court judge for Northumberland.

It’s a collection of essays about eight men (!) who had a profound on the cultural and artistic life of Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as its physical makeup. They were painters, silversmiths, engravers, architects, and an author.

Among the eight was Edinburgh-born William Bell Scott (1811-1890)—painter, poet, and Pre-Raphaelite—who became principal of the School of Art in Newcastle for two decades from 1843. When I was half way through this particular chapter I realised that I knew about William Bell Scott, at least had personally seen some of his work, although from the outset had not drawn the connection.

Pauline, Lady Trevelyan

Anyone who has visited Wallington Hall that lies 12 miles west of Morpeth in Northumberland will know exactly what I’m referring to. Between 1856 and 1861 Scott painted a series of murals on the walls of what had been the central courtyard at Wallington. Victorian art critic and founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Ruskin had persuaded Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, first wife of the 6th Baronet to enclose this space with a roof.

What’s particularly interesting about these murals is that local personalities, including Lady Trevelyan, are depicted in some. Indeed, painter Alice Boyd, Scott’s former pupil who became his longtime ‘companion’ figures in the scene of Northumberland heroine Grace Darling.

Alice Boyd (L) and Christina Rossetti (R)

Now I say ‘companion’; the relationship was undoubtedly more intimate. Scott had, apparently, a natural attraction for women. At a relatively young age he married Letitia Norquoy, whom he treated shabbily for the rest of their married life. In 1847, Scott became acquainted with the Rossetti family in London, after receiving a letter from a young Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poet and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His sister Christina, also a renowned poet, fell in love with Scott. It was more than two years after they became acquainted that the Rossetti family discovered that Scott was already married. It seems Christina pined all her adult life for a relationship that could never be, although she did visit on occasion with Scott and his wife, and the significant other, Alice Boyd. As Princess Diana once famously said: “There were three persons in this marriage“. Scott lived openly with Alice Boyd for more than 30 years, and she and Letitia became friends.


 

Combatting jet lag for job interviews across the globe

I started my first job on 1 January 1973. I retired (at 61) on 30 April 2010, after more than 37 years continuous employment. All but ten years were spent working abroad, in South and Central America, and in Asia. I also got to travel to more than 60 countries in the course of my work in international agricultural research and academia.

I’ve held five different positions in three organizations: the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima, Peru); the University of Birmingham; and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, in the Philippines). However, I was interviewed for just two of those five positions, although during the course of my career I have flown all over the world for at least three other job interviews, none of which were successful as there always seemed to be an ‘internal candidate’ waiting in the wings. And in all cases, I had to combat jet lag to a greater or lesser extent all the while. You run on adrenaline and a certain degree of sang froid through the interviews [1].


Jack Hawkes

My first job at CIP, as an Associate Taxonomist, came about almost by chance. In September 1970 I had enrolled on a one year MSc course on plant genetic resources conservation and use in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. The head of department, Professor Jack Hawkes, was an internationally-renowned potato expert and one of the pioneers of the 1960s genetic conservation movement. Just before Christmas that year he set off for a two month wild potato collecting trip to Bolivia, calling at CIP in Lima to seek some logistical help with the expedition. It was during that visit to CIP that the Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer mentioned that he wanted to send one of his young staff to the Birmingham course in September 1971. And did Jack know anyone who could come to CIP, for just one year, to help look at after the center’s growing germplasm collection of native Andean potato varieties (of which there are thousands).

On returning to the UK at the end of February 1971, Jack phoned me within a day of his return, and mentioned the position at CIP, and asked if I would be interested. I had no hesitation in saying an emphatic Yes! I’d always wanted to visit Peru, and having a position, albeit short-term, in genetic resources conservation was almost too good to be true.

Things didn’t go exactly to plan. There was a delay, while CIP negotiated with the UK government through the Overseas Development Administration (or was it Ministry of Overseas Development back in the day). My travel to Peru was put on hold, but I did register for and begin studies on potatoes towards a PhD in botany.

Richard Sawyer

Sometime during 1972 (I don’t remember exactly when) Richard Sawyer visited Birmingham, and I had an opportunity to sit down with him and Jack to discuss my posting in Lima. By then it had been agreed that it would be longer than just one year, and that I’d stay there long enough to complete the research for my PhD. I must have said all the right things, since Sawyer agreed to this arrangement. What I can say is that it wasn’t a formal interview as such. He had a habit of meeting prospective candidates around the world, often in airports, and deciding there and then if he wanted to hire them.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I flew to Lima on 4 January 1973 and remained there until April 1975, when I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my PhD and to submit my thesis. But before returning to the UK, I met with Sawyer concerning my future ambitions with CIP. And he made me an offer to move into CIP’s Outreach Program (later Regional Research) provided I successfully defended my thesis.

I was back in Lima just before the end of December, but not sure then to which regional office I would be posted although we had already initiated some plans for a move to Central America, about which I wrote recently. In April 1976, Steph and I left Lima headed for Turrialba in Costa Rica. And we remained there for almost five years, until the end of November 1980 in fact.

Returning to Lima, I had expected to move on to another of the CIP’s regional offices. Brazil was proposed, but when that fell through, we set about planning to move to the Philippines.


But fate intervened. Around September or October 1980 I heard about a new lectureship (in plant genetic resources) in my old department (by then renamed Plant Biology) at the University of Birmingham. I was torn. I was very happy at CIP and enjoyed the work I had been doing in various aspects of potato production. There again, a tenure-track university lectureship was too good an opportunity to ignore. So I sent in an application.

Around mid-December or so, I received feedback that my name would be put on the short list of candidates for interview, with one proviso. I had to commit to travel to Birmingham (at my own expense) for interview. After a long discussion with Steph, and looking at the most economical way of flying back to the UK (I eventually used Freddie Laker’s Skytrain airline into London-Gatwick from Miami), I confirmed my availability for interview during January.

I was in Birmingham for just over 36 hours (two nights) and afterwards I took the opportunity of visiting my mother who was staying with my eldest brother Martin and his family in Gloucestershire, south of Birmingham. I was in the UK for just under a week all told.

We were three candidates (one female, two male) and I guess that I was, to all intents and purposes, the ‘internal candidate’ (so I can’t rail too much about internal candidates) being the only one with an existing affiliation with the university. I was the last to be interviewed and arrived at the interview room a short while before my turn, to find the first candidate waiting in the corridor while the second was being grilled. We had been told to wait outside the interview room until all interviews had been concluded. One of us would be then invited back in to discuss a possible job offer.

With dry mouth and somewhat sweaty palms (and feeling rather jaded through jet lag) I entered the interview room with some trepidation. However, I was greeted by some friendly faces. The interview panel (certainly five persons) was chaired by Professor John Jinks, head of the Genetics Department and a formidable intellect. He was supported by Professor Derek Walker, head of the Biochemistry Department and Dean of the Science Faculty. There were three staff from Plant Biology: Jack Hawkes, Dr Dennis Wilkins (a fierce ecologist whose interviewing style seemed like a dog worrying a bone – I’d already come across him during my interview for a place on the MSc course, and as a graduate student), and Dr (later Professor) Brian Ford-Lloyd, who I’d known since my early graduate days and who has remained a lifelong friend and colleague with whom I have since published three books and many scientific papers. There may have been another person from the university administration, but I don’t recall.

I guess the interview must have lasted about 40 minutes, each member of the panel taking turns to probe my suitability for this lectureship. Unlike interviews for academic and research positions nowadays, I did not have to present a seminar to the department or be ‘interviewed’ by anyone outside the panel. (Incidentally, when the Mason Chair of Botany became vacant in 1982 on Jack Hawkes’ retirement, none of the staff met any of the professorial candidates nor were they expected to present a seminar).

Interview over, I joined the other two candidates outside, each of us deep in our own thoughts and very little conversation among us. After what seemed an age, but was probably no more than about 15 minutes, the door opened, and Brian came out to invite me back. John Jinks told me that the panel had agreed to offer me the lectureship and asked if I would accept it. I had already discussed with Steph what my answer would be under these circumstances. Unequivocally yes!

I don’t remember much after that. Except that Jack invited me for dinner at his house. I was staying in one of the guest rooms at Staff House in the center of the Birmingham campus. Early next morning, I made my way to the railway station and headed south for a few days before flying back to Peru and telling Steph (and our young daughter Hannah, almost three) the good news.


I joined the Plant Biology faculty on 1 April 1981 and spent ten years teaching undergraduate classes in flowering plant taxonomy, agricultural systems (as a component of a second year common course), and an honours course (with Brian) on plant genetic resources. But most of my teaching was at graduate level, to students from all over the world, who came to Birmingham for its world-renowned MSc course on genetic resources.

Then there was research on potatoes and legumes, and during this decade I supervised a number of graduate students to successfully submit their PhD theses. I had some administrative responsibilities that we were all expected to carry, some more than others. Towards the end of the 80s, however, things were changing at the university, and Margaret Thatcher’s government intervention in higher education was causing considerable disruption and disquiet. I found myself increasingly disillusioned with academic life.

Fate intervened, once again. I received notice of a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines to lead one of the world’s most important genebanks. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. It was not an easy decision. Since IRRI was a sister institute to CIP, funded the same way through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (or CGIAR) I knew, more or less what I would be letting myself in for if I joined IRRI.

However, there were more pressing personal issues. When we returned to the UK in 1981, our elder daughter Hannah was almost three. Her sister Philippa was born in May 1982. In 1991 they were thirteen and nine, and about to make the transition from from middle to high school, and from first to middle school, respectively. How would they cope with a move halfway across the world, leaving everything familiar behind, all their friends, and moving into an entirely new education system (we’d already decided that boarding school in the UK would not be an option).


Klaus Lampe

In early January 1991 I was invited for interview at IRRI, and flew with British Airways on a flight from London-Gatwick via Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong. The interviews were scheduled for Tuesday to Thursday, three rather intensive days of panel discussions, one-on-one meetings with senior staff, and a seminar. So I chose a flight that would get me into Manila on the Monday afternoon. Well, that was the plan. Arriving at Gatwick I discovered that my flight was delayed about 12 hours. Our designated 747 had a mechanical fault that could not be sorted easily, so we had to wait for a replacement plane to arrive from Florida before being turned around for the flight to the Far East. What a miserable experience. As a result I arrived to IRRI’s research campus in Los Baños (about 65 km south of Manila) around 01:30 on Tuesday morning and, checking over the interview schedule that had been left in my room at IRRI’s guesthouse, noted to my distinct discomfort that I had a breakfast meeting with the Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, and his three Deputies at 07:00. Having left a request to be woken at 06:15, I took a sleeping pill, not that it helped much .

My internal clock was eight hours awry, but somehow I made it through the breakfast, and the next three days, taking a flight back to the UK late on Thursday night. I think I must have slept for a week once I was back in the UK.

There were three candidates for the genebank position. And we all had MSc (genetic resources) and PhD degrees (two on potatoes, one on rice) from the University of Birmingham and with Jack Hawkes as our PhD supervisor. I knew the other two candidates very well. One managed the Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne near Birmingham and the other headed the genebank at another CGIAR center in Nigeria, IITA. Although we overlapped some days at IRRI, our schedule of interviews and meetings meant that we hardly saw anything of each other.

On reflection, the interview schedule was gruelling, with hardly any time to catch one’s breath. We were kept on the go all the time, often with just short breaks between one interview and the next. It was an IRRI tradition to involve as many of the staff in interviewing candidates as possible, with a multiplicity of interview panels representing the different disciplines or a mixture [2]. And of course there was the more detailed interaction with staff in the genebank in my case.

Because the different panels did not interact with one another, candidates (as in my case) were faced with the same line of questions across different panels. Very repetitive and tiresome. And there were, in my opinion, the totally unacceptable and asinine questions from some IRRI staff, some of which received short shrift from me.

Let me give you two or three examples. I was asked if I was prepared to work hard. One line of questioning seemed to question my suitability for joining a center like IRRI and the CGIAR in general. I answered by a question: when did the person join the CGIAR? I was able to reply that I had joined and left the CGIAR years before this particular person had even first entered international agricultural research. 15: love to me! Another scientist, British, was obsessed with my undergraduate career and how successful I had been, notwithstanding that I had graduate degrees, and had been working already for almost 20 years.

A couple of weeks after arriving back in the UK I received a phone call from Lampe offering me the position, which I accepted after some negotiation over the salary and benefits package they originally put on the table. I joined IRRI on 1 July that year, and remained there until my retirement a decade ago.

After successfully running the genebank, in 2001 I was asked by Director General Ron Cantrell (with Board of Trustees approval) to join the senior management team, and become IRRI’s Director for Program Planning and Communications, a position I held until my retirement 2010.


[1] At one interview for the Crop Trust in Rome, I was interrupted by someone as I was delivering my seminar, a vision for the future of the organization. After the second interruption, in which this person had tried to ‘correct’ me, I had to tell her that this was my seminar, not hers, and went on to explain my thoughts on web presence. As it turned out I was not selected, but the organization did adopt my proposal for a more meaningful URL for its website.

On another occasion at Trinity College, Dublin, I delivered my seminar in the very lecture theater (in the Department of Botany) where Michael Caine had his wicked way with Julie Walters in the 1983 film Educating Rita.

When I interviewed for a position at ICARDA in Syria, much to my consternation and many members of staff the internal candidate accompanied me to one of the panel interviews, and even sat in on the interview. Needless to say a stop was soon put to that. Very unprofessional for senior management to even allow this to happen.

[2] When I joined IRRI and was involved in interviewing candidates (sometimes as chair of the selection committee) I tried to streamline the process somewhat, reducing the number of panel interviews per se, but giving more time for informal interactions, but giving more responsibility to the selection panel.


 

Growing potatoes – growing professionally

November 1980. After almost five years (from April 1976) Steph and I were preparing to leave Costa Rica, the small Central American country sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. Our elder daughter Hannah was born there in April 1978. But our time in that beautiful country was coming to an end, and we were headed back to Lima.

So how come I ended up in Costa Rica working on potatoes, since agriculture there is dominated by rice and beans? And coffee and bananas, of course. Potatoes are small beer [1].

Let me explain.

It all started in January 1973, when I joined the staff of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima and, in the process, fulfilled an ambition I’d had since I was a small boy: to visit Peru.

During the three years I was based in Lima, working as an Associate Taxonomist and helping to conserve CIP’s large collection of native Andean potato varieties, I completed research for my PhD degree, awarded by the University of Birmingham in December 1975.

Earlier that year, in April, I returned to Birmingham to complete the residency requirements for my degree, and to submit my thesis (which was examined in October). However, before leaving for the UK, I had discussions with CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer, about rejoining CIP after I had completed my PhD. I wanted to broaden my horizons and learn more about and contribute to potato production around the world, rather than continue working with the potato collection or taxonomy research. He offered me a post-doctoral position in CIP’s Outreach Program, being posted to one of the regional offices.

Exploring options
In 1975, CIP’s Region II program, encompassing Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, had its regional office in Toluca, Mexico (about 64 km west of Mexico City). Potatoes are not a major crop in this region—maize and beans being the staples—although they are locally and economically important in each country.

It was a year of transition. CIP’s regional representative at that time, Ing. Agr. MS Manuel J. Villareal González, had just been named leader of Mexico’s national potato program (in Toluca). My Lima colleague, Ing. Agr. MS Oscar Hidalgo, a plant pathologist, took over as Region II leader and moved to Mexico.

Manuel Villareal and Oscar Hidalgo

The other members of the CIP team in Toluca were local support staff: José Gómez and secretary Guillermina Guadarrama, formerly employees of the Rockefeller Foundation potato program, and some field and glasshouse technicians.

Jose and Guillermina

CIP management proposed setting up a sub-regional office in Costa Rica, without yet deciding what its programmatic responsibility and research focus might be.

To explore various possibilities, Steph and I were asked to visit Costa Rica and Mexico in April on our way back to the UK. And that’s what we did. I should add that I was nervous the whole trip. Why? I was carrying a briefcase full of my thesis research data. I was paranoid that some light-fingered individual might relieve me of the briefcase. There was no computer cloud storage in those days, let alone floppy disks or flash drives.

For many years it was not possible to fly direct between Lima and San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The journey inevitably required a stop-over in Panama City, usually overnight. On our trip north we stayed at the airport hotel but had time enough to explore parts of the city center (not the Canal Zone, unfortunately). And that’s when we had our first McDonald’s hamburgers. I have this distinct memory of my immediate boss, head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Breeding & Genetics, Dr. Roger Rowe, coming back to Lima from one of his home leaves in the USA and telling us all about these ‘new’ hamburger joints that we should try when we had the opportunity. I had thought that, in 1975, McDonald’s was new to Panama, but from what I have found on the internet, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant there in 1971. Notwithstanding, it was a first for us.

Drs. Luis Carlos Gonzalez (L) and Rodrigo Gamez (R)

My Lima colleague, bacteriologist and head of CIP’s Dept. of Plant Pathology & Nematology, Dr. Ed French made arrangements for us to visit with fellow bacteriologist Dr. Luis Carlos Gonzalez Umaña and plant virologist Dr. Rodrigo Gámez Lobo (who, in later years went on to found and become President of the renowned INBio, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad) at the University of Costa Rica.

Luis Carlos and Rodrigo made us very welcome and, with the leader of the Costarrican potato program, Ing. Agr. Luis Fernando Cartín, took us to see potatoes growing on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano east of San Jose, to labs in the university, and, as a side ‘tourist’ visit, to the Instituto Clodomiro Picado nearby where anti-snake venom serum is produced on a large scale (often in horses). Costa Rica has more than 20 highly venomous snake species.

I think we spent about four days in Costa Rica before travelling on to Mexico. We certainly came away from Costa Rica with a favorable impression. San José is dominated by a stunning landscape of volcanoes (Poás, Irazú, Turrialba), some active or recently active, covered in lush, tropical forest and, on the lower slopes, coffee plantations for which the country is famous. Back in the day, San José was a small city of about 456,000 inhabitants.

In Mexico, we stayed with our friends from Lima, John and Marian Vessey who had moved there in 1974 to work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City. Apart from a visit to the potato program in Toluca, we had the opportunity for some sightseeing, with a memorable visit to the pre-Columbian pyramids at Teotihuacán about 32 km north from CIMMYT.

Steph and me on the top of the Sun Pyramid looking towards the Moon Pyramid at Teotihuacan (April 1975).

Ken Brown

Settling on Costa Rica
Steph and I returned to Lima just after Christmas, all set to move on later in 1976. But where? A decision had not yet been made about Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, a new Director of CIP’s Outreach Program, Dr. Ken Brown, had been appointed while I was back in the UK, and joined CIP in January. In due course, Outreach became the Regional Research Program. As both Ken and his family (wife Geraldine, and five boys) and Steph and I were staying in the center’s guest house for several weeks, we got to know the Browns quite well.

Prof. Luis Sequeira

In order to hasten our move to Region II, we needed to identify an appropriate international institute to host my posting in Costa Rica. So, Roger Rowe, Ed French, and I flew to Costa Rica for a week in early January [2]. There we met with Luis Carlos and Professor Luis Sequeira from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a world renowned plant bacteriologist (and Costarrican by birth) with whom Luis Carlos had completed his PhD, who happened to be visiting family at the time.

We visited sites on the Irazú Volcano and near Alajuela (a regional town northwest of San José) where Luis Carlos was testing potato breeding lines for resistance to bacterial wilt.

We also visited the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional center in Turrialba dedicated to research and graduate education in agriculture, and the management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, established originally in 1942 as the headquarters of the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Sciences (IICA).

The CATIE ‘Henry Wallace’ administration building

CATIE plant pathologist Dr. Raul Moreno from Chile explains the focus of the center’s farming systems research to (L-R) Luis Sequeira, Ed French, and Roger Rowe.

Turrialba is a small town just over 70 km due east of San José, although at a much lower elevation—around 650m compared with almost 1200m in the city.

The drive to Turrialba from San José via Cartago was not straightforward. Until around 1978 (or maybe later) the section between Cartago and Turrialba was a dirt road, and quite dangerous. It was also the main route from the Caribbean port of Limón to San José so there was a continual stream of heavy (and noisy) trucks travelling between the two cities. The road passed through a zone of frequent low cloud (neblina) with reduced visibility, sometimes quite severely. And, passing through several sugarcane plantations, there would be tractors towing ‘trains’ of carts carrying harvested cane snaking along the road to local sugar mills, and often without displaying any hazard lights. With the state of the road, the frequency of the heavy traffic, and limited visibility, one could get stuck behind one of these slow-moving ‘trains’ for many kilometers. Very frustrating!

At CATIE, we met with the Acting Director, Dr. Jorge Soria (a cocoa breeder) to discuss signing an agreement between CIP and CATIE that would allow me to work from CATIE as a regional base, and set up a research program to breed potatoes for hot humid climates. Turrialba has an average annual temperature of 22.9°C (73.2°F), and more than 2854 mm (or 112.4 inch) of rainfall per year. The wettest months are May to December, with heaviest rainfall in June and July. This, we assumed, would be an ideal, if not challenging environment in which to attempt to grow potatoes.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, an agreement was signed between CIP and CATIE, under which I was to be attached to CATIE’s Crops Department. It was also agreed that CIP would contribute to CATIE’s cropping systems program (funded through USAID’s Regional Office for Central America and Panama, ROCAP) once suitable potato varieties had been identified.

Steph and I headed to Costa Rica in early April 1976, and we remained there until the end of November 1980. I’ve been back there just once, in 1997.

Getting started in Turrialba
Back in 1976, I can’t deny that I was rather daunted about setting out on my own. I’d turned 27 only the previous November. And communicating with colleagues back in Lima was not straightforward, as I have described in another post.

We didn’t plant our first potato experiments in Turrialba until May 1977 to check whether any varieties would yield under the warm and humid conditions there. Instead, we were faced with bacterial wilt, a devastating disease of potatoes and other related crops like tomato (as well as bananas!), about which I have blogged before.

Between arriving in Costa Rica the previous year and then, I’d had to renovate screenhouses for our research, acquire a vehicle (that took several months), hire a research assistant and a secretary, as well as attend to other regional duties that Oscar Hidalgo asked me to undertake. In fact within a few weeks of arriving in Costa Rica he whisked me off to Mexico for a month to participate in a potato production course, leaving Steph on her own in (to her) a very strange Turrialba.

Within a couple of months or so, I’d hired a young man, Jorge Aguilar Martinez, as my research assistant. Jorge lived in Santa Rosa, a small village just outside Turrialba, where his father grew coffee on a small farm (finca). Jorge was 20 in June that year, recently married to Carmen (a secretary in the animal husbandry department at CATIE), and with a small boy, Leonardo (who is now Head of Information and Communication Technology at CATIE).

Jorge Aguilar

Jorge had applied for a position in the Crops Department at CATIE before I arrived there, but there were no vacancies. He seemed an ideal candidate: keen, interested to get on in the world. He was studying at night at the local campus of the University of Costa Rica for a qualification in business management. Apart from his coffee background, he had no field experience in crop agronomy, let alone potatoes! But Jorge was a quick learner. In fact, we learned a lot together how to grow potatoes. What particularly impressed me about him was his willingness to innovate, look for solutions. And have a flexible attitude to how we worked. We got the job done, and that often meant leaving for our experimental field plots higher up one of the nearby volcanoes before daybreak, and not returning to Turrialba until late in the afternoon once everything had been completed.

One of our isolation plots for seed multiplication high on the slopes of the Turrialba volcano.

Then a young woman, Leda Avila, from Alajuela joined my project as a bilingual secretary. Her support was fantastic. She had a bubbly and confident character, and was always curious to understand exactly what we were doing in the field. One day she asked me if she could join us on one of our visits to experimental plots we had planted on the slopes of the two local volcanoes, Irazú and Turrialba. She told me that as she typed research reports for Lima she had no idea what the work involved, but wanted to find out. So, one day, and donning her field boots, Leda joined the CIP team in the field.

She was so enthusiastic about her first field experience that she would join us thereafter as and when circumstances permitted. Much to the consternation of our CATIE colleagues. They’d never heard of such a thing. But to me, it just made sense to include Leda as a key member of the team.

Moisés Alonso Pereira

In late 1977, Oscar Hidalgo registered for his PhD at North Carolina State University, and left for the USA. On Ken Brown’s recommendation, Richard Sawyer asked me to take over leadership of the Region II Program. As a consequence, my travel schedule increased significantly (especially as we were developing an important cooperative program on potatoes involving six countries, PRECODEPA), and I had to find permanent technical support for Jorge. I hired Moisés Alonso Pereira as Research Technician, who was 17 or 18 then.

Searching for resistance to bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum) and ways to control it became an important focus of our research in Turrialba. But we also developed rapid multiplication techniques for seed production, and that work accelerated once my colleague and dear friend, Jim Bryan, joined the project in Costa Rica for one year in the late seventies, seen in some of the photos below passing on his encyclopedic knowledge about seed production and rapid multiplication techniques to Jorge and others. We also trained potato scientists from neighboring countries about these techniques through PRECODEPA.

At the same time as we were developing these rapid multiplication methods, my colleagues Bob Booth and Roy Shaw in Lima were adapting diffuse light potato storages for use on farm. We took one of their designs, and adapted it for use in Turrialba. With a double sandwich of fiberglass panels, a wide roof overhang to shade the sides, and an air conditioner to drop the temperature to a reasonable level (it was often more than 30ºC outside) we could successfully store potatoes for several months.

Turrialba became a prime site for testing potato varieties for their resistance to bacterial wilt, and CIP scientists from Lima would pass through to see for themselves how we were getting on. Given his interest and expertise in bacterial wilt it wasn’t surprising that Ed French visited us on at least one occasion.

Ed French and Jorge Aguilar checking the yield of some potato varieties after exposure to bacterial wilt. This plot is surrounded by the remains of wilted plants.

We also worked with colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (MAG) in San José to test different potato lines against various diseases such as viruses, and worked with farmers to find ways to increase productivity.

The productivity of many potato farms was quite low. Why? Overuse of fertilizers and agrochemicals, and not applying these in the most effective way to control pests and diseases, especially control of the late blight disease to which the two main varieties Atzimba and Rosita were highly susceptible. Many farmers worked on the basis that twice the dose of a fungicide, for example, would provide twice the control. Sadly that was never the case. Working with individual farmers was possible, but having the potato growers association on side was important. And their president was a young and forward-looking farmer, Olman Montero.

With Olman Montero on his farm on the slopes of the Irazu volcano.

Our work led to a few publications. Scientific publication was always welcome, but was never a driving force in our work. We were more concerned to make a difference in farmers’ fields by providing clean seed, improving productivity, identifying resistant potato varieties, or managing diseases in the field.

  • Bryan, J.E., M.T. Jackson & N. Melendez, 1981. Rapid Multiplication Techniques for Potatoes. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.F. Cartín & J.A. Aguilar, 1981. El uso y manejo de fertilizantes en el cultivo de la papa (Solanum tuberosum L.) en Costa Rica. Agronomía Costarricense 5, 15-19. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T. & L.C. González, 1981. Persistence of Pseudomonas solanacearum (Race 1) in a naturally infested soil in Costa Rica. Phytopathology 71, 690-693. PDF
  • Jackson, M.T., L.C. González & J.A. Aguilar, 1979. Avances en el combate de la marchitez bacteriana de papa en Costa Rica. Fitopatología 14, 46-53. PDF

The five years that I spent in Costa Rica were among the best of my career. I really had to become self-reliant, learning to stand on my own two feet and grow professionally as a scientist and a project manager. There was no alternative. Being so far from CIP headquarters in Lima, and with communications vastly slower than today, I just couldn’t call on someone if I found myself in a spot of bother. Phone calls had to be booked at least a day in advance, or we could use telex – who remembers that? Otherwise I just mailed quarterly progress reports to keep everyone up to date with what was going on in Central America, and whether I was keeping to the work plans developed in December each year when the Regional Research staff from around the world congregated in Lima for a two week planning meeting. Ken Brown was an excellent Regional Research director; he let me and my Regional Research colleagues get on with things with only minor adjustments as and when necessary (keeping his staff ‘on a light rein’), so different from today when scientists are assailed frequently and from many quarters to account for their work and performance.

I owe a great debt to Jorge, Moisés, and Leda for all their contributions to the success of the CIP project in Costa Rica. And all my friends and colleagues in Costa Rica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, as well as other programs contributing to PRECODEPA.

It was with some sadness that Steph, Hannah, and I upped sticks and moved back to Lima. You might ask why we would make such a move when things were going well in the Costa Rica program. By November 1980 I felt that I had achieved what I’d been sent there for, and even if I stayed on for another year or so, the scope of the work wouldn’t have changed significantly. In any case, the PRECODEPA project was ticking along quite nicely, managed by the national programs themselves, and everyone felt that a more distant relationship with CIP would allow the project to grow and mature. In any case, I was also looking for another potato challenge. And I expected that to come with another Regional Research posting. Little did I know, at the end of November that year, what life would have in store for me in 1981 [3].


Where are they now?
Since leaving Costa Rica at the end of November 1980, I have only been back to Costa Rica once, in 1997 when I was managing a worldwide project on rice biodiversity for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) funded by the Swiss government. I did meet both Jorge and Leda on that trip; I don’t recall if I saw Moisés during that visit to Turrialba. I stayed a couple of days in Turrialba. Maybe Jorge, Moisés and I spent an evening at the hilltop bar-restaurant at Turrialtico (now a fancy lodge) near CATIE where we would venture to enjoy a few beers (and some typical bar snacks or bocas) after a day in the field. And I had mostly lost contact with all three former colleagues—until quite recently. Such is the power of social media!

Jorge, Leda, and Moisés are all now retired, more or less, although involved in various volunteer activities. They would be in their early to mid-sixties now.

Jorge continues to live in Turrialba, and still manages a small finca on a part-time basis. He and his wife Carmen have three sons and two granddaughters. Sofía and Amanda are Leonardo’s daughters.

Jorge and Carmen

L-R: Fabian (40), Leonardo (44). Carmen, Jorge, and Daniel (30).

Sofia (7) and Amanda (2)

After leaving CATIE in early 1980, Leda returned to Alajuela, and spent many years working at the headquarters of IICA on the outskirts of San José. She has enjoyed traveling in her retirement, most recently in Myanmar in 2019.

She has one son, Enrique (29) who I met in 1997. I stayed with Leda for a couple of nights in Alajuela, and Enrique graciously gave me his room.

Enrique and Leda on 9 November 2020 in her garden in Alajuela.

Moisés now lives in the La Pitahaya neighborhood of Cartago, a city at the heart of the Costarrican potato industry, lying more or less halfway between San José and Turrialba.

Leda, Moisés, and José Alonso

With his second wife Leda, he has one son José Alonso, who celebrated his 11th birthday just a few days ago. Moisés also has two daughters Ana Amelia (26) and Karen (24) from his first marriage. He also has two granddaughters aged sixteen and fifteen.

It’s wonderful to have reconnected with old friends.


[1] In 1983, I contributed a short piece on potatoes in Costa Rican Natural History, a book edited by eminent tropical biologist, Daniel Janzen who spent many years studying biodiversity in Costa Rica.

[2] I have two enduring memories of that trip. Actually, of the flight from Lima to Panama, and the return. As I mentioned earlier, there were no direct flights from Lima to Costa Rica back in the day. We took an early morning flight (around 06:30 or so) on Air Panama from Lima to Panama City, with an onward connection there to San José. Hardly had the aircraft (a Boeing 727) lifted off the runway in Lima when it was ‘open bar’ for the remainder of the flight. I think Roger, Ed, and I all enjoyed rum cocktails before breakfast! Then on the return flight from Panama (I have this idea at the back of my mind that it was a Braniff DC8 flight), we hit an air pocket somewhere over the Colombian Andes, and it felt as though the plane dropped 1000 feet. Bang! That was my first experience of some serious turbulence, but not the last by a long chalk over the next 45 years.

[3] We returned to Lima, with the expectation of moving to Brasilia (for the southern cone countries of South America). When that fell through, the next option was to join the CIP program for Southeast Asia, based in Los Baños in the Philippines. In the event, that didn’t come about since I had applied for a faculty position in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at the University of Birmingham, being offered the position in January 1981. We moved back to the UK in March that year. It would be another decade before landing up in the Philippines. But that’s another story.

Two’s company . . .

. . . three’s a crowd. So the saying goes.

Just recently I’ve been thinking about different musical partnerships or collaborations, for reasons that will become apparent towards the end of this blog post.

When it comes to much of the music of the 18th and 19th centuries, it seems that collaborations between composer and librettist weren’t celebrated as such.

Have you ever heard of Lorenzo Da Ponte? You haven’t? I didn’t think so. Neither had I until I searched for information about librettists who collaborated with well-known composers. Da Ponte (left, below) was the librettist for three of Mozart’s most famous operas: Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Così fan tutte.

Or Francesco Maria Piave (right, above) who wrote ten of the librettos for Giuseppe Verdi, including La traviata and Rigoletto.

Funny how we don’t talk about Mozart and Da Ponte as such, an 18th century ‘Rogers and Hammerstein’. I jest.

Some composers like Richard Wagner were masters of music and words. He wrote both the libretto and score for Der Ring des Nibelungen, commonly known as The Ring Cycle.

In the late 19th century, the collaboration between dramatist Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan resulted in the production of fourteen comic operas such as The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Gondoliers, and The Pirates of Penzance, between 1871 and 1896.

WS Gilbert (L) and Arthur Sullivan (R).

I’ve been a fan of G&S operettas since my early teens, and Ruddigore is a particular favorite. Here’s Vincent Price as Sir Despard Murgatroyd in a 1983 TV production of Ruddigore, opposite ‘Mad Margaret’ played by British actress Ann Howard.

Then if we move on a few decades, the collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II led to a string of Broadway musical hits, such as Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

Surely the most successful musical collaboration of the second half of the 20th century must be John Lennon and Paul McCartney that led to a plethora of Beatles hits and top-selling albums. Even though it seems that each wrote songs more or less individually, these were published under their joint names.

Being a child of the 60s, I was a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel. Still am. While Paul Simon wrote most of the songs during their active years as a duo, Art Garfunkel crafted how the songs were actually performed, the harmonies achieved and the like. They had their rifts, break-ups, yet came together periodically to wow their fans. Just listen to this performance of Sounds of Silence at Madison Square Garden in 2009, forty five years after it was first released. Makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

So this now brings me on to one of the most improbable musical collaborations of recent years, between Robert Plant, front man and bare-chested singer of rock band Led Zeppelin, and Alison Krauss, queen of bluegrass and multiple Grammy award-winning lead of Alison Krauss and Union Station.

What an unlikely coming together of artists from wildly different genres. Yet, it was a match made in heaven. In 2007, Plant and Krauss released an album, Raising Sand, featuring thirteen tracks, and produced by T Bone Burnett (who plays guitar on the video below).

During the pandemic lockdown I’ve continued to take my daily walk, anywhere between 1.5 and almost 4 miles. And increasingly I have been listening to music on my iPod. I have more than 3500 tracks stored, and usually play them in shuffle mode so I never know quite what to expect next.

Just last week, within a minute or so of leaving home, I had the second track on Raising Sand streaming through my head phones. I’ve heard several versions of Killing the Blues (written by Rowland Jon Salley in 1977), but this live version by Plant and Krauss is just perfect, performed on the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland in 2008.

It’s music that just makes me happy . . .

The quiet man of GRC

GRC? It’s short for the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which I had the privilege to lead between July 1991 and April 2001. I’m not sure if GRC is an organizational unit at IRRI anymore having just checked IRRI’s organizational structure dated April 2020.

However, GRC is/was the home of the International Rice Genebank at IRRI, the largest of its kind globally for rice. It safely conserves more than 130,000 samples (known as accessions) of cultivated and wild rice species from around the world and, as the most genetically-diverse collection of rice anywhere, it is the foundation for food security in many countries, especially in Asia. Rice breeders have dipped into this valuable resource for almost six decades since IRRI was founded in 1960 and the first germplasm samples brought to Los Baños by my predecessor, Dr TT Chang.

Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño

Anyway, this post is not about me or Dr Chang, but about someone who surely was the quiet man of GRC. Who is this low-key individual?

Why, Renato Reaño of course, known to one and all as ‘Ato’.

Not long after I joined IRRI, it became clear to me that Ato should become my right-hand man for managing all the genebank field operations, from multiplication and rejuvenation of seed samples, as well as establishing and looking after field plots for germplasm characterization (although the actual scoring of the materials was the responsibility for a few years of another colleague, Tom Clemeno, who passed away in 2015).

So, once I’d made an analysis of how the genebank was being managed when I took the helm in 1991, and decided on changes I deemed necessary (not universally accepted by all genebank in the first instance after several decades of working under Dr Chang), I asked Ato to take on the role of Field Operations Manager (although at that time he was officially still only a Research Assistant).

Ato retired from IRRI in March this years after more than 36 years of loyal—and very productive—service to the institute. Over the years, and as his confidence grew, taking on more responsibilities, Ato was promoted to new levels in the IRRI hierarchy, and retired as a Senior Associate Scientist.

Along the way he was elected to lead the IRRI employees association (an excellent indication of the esteem in which his colleagues held him), and he was also elected President of the Crop Science Society of the Philippines (CSSP) for 2006-2007.


Ato helped develop and implement many necessary changes to field operations. What is often not fully appreciated that for the long-term conservation of seeds in a genebank, what happens in the field during the growing season and how seeds are handled through the drying process are as important—if not more so in some respects—than the actual storage conditions. Dr Fiona Hay, a seed physiologist who was hired after I’d passed the GRC baton to my successor Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton in 2002, studied how the drying of seeds could be improved further, and Ato’s role in managing the rice germplasm in the field and the drying after harvest was pivotal. I’ve written about those aspects of rice germplasm management in an August 2015 post.

Ato made the field operations look straightforward. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had to handle thousands of seed samples each planting season, nurturing each one, ensuring there were no mix-ups.

He had a great rapport with his staff. Here he is with some of them in 2017 after they had finished the harvest of more than 4000 samples, and dried them successfully using the new approach that I referred to in the August 2015 post above.

Ato (second from right) with his field staff in 2017. Photo courtesy of Fiona Hay.

Each season (there being two in Los Baños, wet and dry) Ato took responsibility for growing thousands of seed samples, some for the first time after they had been acquired by the genebank, others for routine regeneration if seed viability had declined or seed stocks were running low, or for characterization of the different rices for a whole series of traits, such as days to flowering, plant height, color of grains, and the like.

But to have a better appreciation of Ato’s work in the field and how that contributed to the work of the genebank, just watch this segment, 2:04 – 4:29 minutes in the video below to see for yourselves.

Ato remained the quiet man of GRC during the years I was at the helm, but he constantly grew in confidence, taking his first overseas trip on behalf of the genebank to present a paper at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India in 1995, and eventually being recognised by his peers and elected to the roles I mentioned earlier.

I also relied on Ato to help me interact with GRC staff. If I became aware of a staff ‘situation’ developing (perhaps an unease I could detect as I made my daily visits to every part of the genebank), it would have been difficult for me as Head of GRC, and as a non-Filipino who didn’t speak Tagalog, to easily get to the bottom of things. Then I would ask Ato to help find out what was going on, deal with it if he could, and only elevate issues to me that needed my intervention. This relationship worked well, and I was very grateful to Ato for the management support he provided in this respect.

Thanks for everything that you did, Ato. Your contributions to the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources will long be remembered and appreciated.

With Ato’s retirement, there’s just one of ‘my’ staff left. Genebank Manager Pola de Guzman will also retire later this year. It will finally be the end of the Chang-Jackson-Sackville Hamilton era.


 

Cockwomble-in-Chief

What a delightful word. It just rolls off the tongue.

It is, so I have read, of Scottish origin having equivalents in other languages, like gilipollas in Spanish (or maybe cabrón in Peruvian Spanish that I am familiar with).

I came across it for the first time the other day in a Facebook post referring to Donald Trump. Well, from its definition, that seems a most apt description. It refers to a person, usually male, prone to making outrageously stupid statements and/or inappropriate behavior while generally having a very high opinion of his own wisdom and importance. *

Doesn’t that just sum up Donald J Trump perfectly? President Cockwomble, Cockwomble-in-Chief.

A couple of days ago I became involved, briefly, in an ‘exchange of views’ about Donald Trump with someone in the Philippines (an acquaintance of my former secretary Sylvia) who had stated that Trump was not an incompetent president.

My reaction: As John McEnroe used to scream: “You cannot be serious!”

Our exchange ended with him ‘accusing’ me of being a Democrat. Well, for those who don’t know me, I’m British but have a keen interest in US politics. My elder daughter is now a US citizen. It’s irrelevant whether I’m Democrat or Republican.

However, if I’d lived in another age, I guess I might well have been a Lincoln Republican. But the Republican Party of the mid-late nineteenth century was rather different from the GOP that (dis)graces our TV screens and the news in general on a daily basis today. If I were a US citizen, I would be voting BLUE.

It’s not revulsion of the GOP per se that makes me take a strong stance about Donald Trump. He is, in my opinion, simply a loathsome human being, as I blogged about just a few days ago.

Through social media I came across this article, British Writer Pens The Best Description Of Trump I’ve Read, on the journal of a grumpy old man blog. The original was penned by Nate White, and I’ve transcribed it below for easier access. I couldn’t have described Trump better myself. It’s had a lot of traction since first appearing around the beginning of 2019 I believe. It’s even more apt today.

A few things spring to mind. Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed. So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman. But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers. And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface. Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul. And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist. Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that. He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat. He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully. That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead. There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
• Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
• You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss. After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum. God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid. He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart. In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish: ‘My God… what… have… I… created?’ If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set. 


*  Also perhaps, the Pennsylvanian Dutch snollygoster, a smart person not guided by principles, although I would dispute the ‘smart’ in DJT’s case.


 

Science publications that influenced my choice of career . . .

I’m sure, like me, many scientists have a few publications that they treasure. No, I’m not referring to any which they themselves authored; rather, publications that made them sit up and pay attention, so to speak. And, in doing so, particularly stimulated their interest and perhaps even guided their own scientific careers subsequently.

I’ve now been retired for ten years, but I still look back to how I got started in the world of plant genetic resources fifty years ago, and some of the scientific publications that pointed me in that direction. Let me backup a little and explain how this came about.

In 1967, I was accepted on to a BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (on England’s south coast) to study environmental botany and geography. I’ve written elsewhere about the three very happy years I spent in Southampton until graduation in July 1970.

The core of my degree course, particularly in my third or senior year, was a two semester ecology module taught in the Botany department, and different aspects of physical geography (such as geomorphology, biogeography, and climatology) in the Geography department. But I also took several shorter elective modules in Botany, including plant speciation, plant breeding, and population genetics. This latter course was taught by one of the pioneers in this field, Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Kenneth Mather who came to Southampton from the University of Birmingham (where he had been head of the Department of Genetics). He claimed (probably with some justification) that he was the only teaching Vice Chancellor at that time in the UK.

Joyce Lambert

We were a small group of only six or so ecology students, and this module was taught by quantitative ecologist Dr Joyce Lambert (who was also my personal tutor). All of us were required to submit an extended essay of 4-5000 words on an ‘ecological topic’ of our choice. It goes without saying that Joyce hinted she would prefer essays about her interest, namely the application of numerical methods to study vegetation landscapes.

I did not heed Joyce’s ‘advice’; I guess she was not best pleased. Instead, and with encouragement from genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt, I chose to explore the relationship between ecology, genetics, and taxonomy (the related fields of ecological genetics and experimental taxonomy) in an essay about the concept of ‘ecotypes’. Simply put, an ecotype is a distinct form or race of a plant occupying a particular habitat.

So that was my aim. What would be my entry point? And which literature would be most useful for my purpose?

From the 1920s onwards, several botanists (Göte Turesson in Sweden, JW Gregor in Scotland, and three staff at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Stanford: geneticist Jens Clausen, physiologist William Hiesey, and taxonomist David Keck) had studied the variation of species (genetically, physiologically, and taxonomically) in relation to their environments, and the role of natural selection on plant adaptation. There was a wealth of literature to delve into. But where to begin?

Jack Heslop-Harrison

I was fortunate that, just a few years earlier, Professor Jack Heslop-Harrison (then Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham) published an important review paper about what became for me a fascinating branch of botanical science, the study of variation within species in relation to environment.

Forty years of genecology, published in Advances in Ecological Research in 1964 (Vol. 2: 159-247) was, for me, one of those formative publications. Not only was the review thoroughly comprehensive in its coverage, but had the added quality of being extremely well written. It has stood the test of time. Yet, it would be interesting to bring it up to date, introducing all the latest evidence based on molecular biology and genomics.

When I contacted Heslop-Harrison’s son ‘Pat’ (who is Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Molecular Cytogenetics at the University of Leicester) to request a copy of his father’s paper (I’d ‘lost’ the copy I once had) he told me that he began writing a review 100 years of genecology, but had never completed it.

He did make this interesting comment: When I started on a ‘100 years’ update, I was taken that some parts [of ‘Forty years of genecology’] sounded remarkably old-fashioned, while other parts could fit unchanged in a strong grant application made today. But how the combination of molecular/marker studies and modelling has really allowed genecology to take its rightful place in biology.

Immersing myself in the various concepts of ‘ecotype’, ‘clines’, and ‘infraspecific variation’ among many others, Heslop-Harrison’s review not only provided me with the impetus to fulfil a pressing course assignment, but subconsciously perhaps helped me make some decisions about a future career. I guess this was the first time I became really enthusiastic about any botanical sub-discipline. Later on, when I began working in the area of conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the study of variation patterns and adaptation in crop species and their wild relatives became an important focus of what I set out to achieve. In fact, understanding the nature of crop plant variation—and how to use it—is one of the fundamental concepts underpinning the value of plant genetic resources.

No study of variation in plant species would be complete, even today I believe, without reference to the pioneering work of Clausen, Keck, and Hiesey in California over several decades from the 1930s. Their work had been highlighted, of course, in Heslop-Harrison’s review. I went back to their original papers*.

L-R: Jens Clausen (cytology and genetics), William Hiesey (physiology), and David Keck (taxonomy/botany)

And what an eye-opener they were: a classic set of papers, published between 1934 and 1958, describing experimental studies on the nature of species that really caught my attention, and to which I still return from time to time.

While others, like Turesson and Gregor, had also studied plant variation experimentally, their work was not on the same scale that Clausen and his colleagues achieved across central California, from the coast to the high Sierra Nevada.

Working with a range of species, they collected samples from different populations of each across this Californian transect and, using a reciprocal transplant approach, grew samples at experimental gardens on the coast at Stanford and at different altitudes in the mountains, at Mather and Timberline. So, for example, samples collected from coastal sites were grown at the high altitude garden, and vice versa and all combinations in between. Even the same species looked different under different environments, in terms of plant stature or days to flowering, for example, being just two of the many traits they studied. They were interested if these traits would persist when grown in another environment. Here is an example from yarrow or Achillea.

Clausen, J, DD Keck and WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III: Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publication 581. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

They studied how well plants from one environment thrived in another, identifying the adaptations that enabled them to survive, and understanding both the genetic and physiological basis for adaptation, while recognising some of the variants taxonomically, if warranted. Many were simply locally-adapted populations, or ecotypes. Just a beautiful and competent piece of science.

Anyway, come the summer of 1970 and having just graduated, I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing or where. I’d been accepted on to the MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham to begin in September. But while I had a guaranteed place, there was no funding. And without a studentship there was no way I could support myself and pay tuition fees.

That all changed at the beginning of August or thereabouts. I had a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes, who was Mason Professor of Botany (succeeding Heslop-Harrison) and the MSc course director, letting me know he’d found some funds to support my studies. It was wonderful news, and I immediately began to make plans to move to Birmingham in mid-September.

There was one important thing Jack asked me to do: purchase a copy of a book that had just been published, and try and work my way through it before I landed up in Birmingham.

This book, Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation, was more than an eye opener as far as I was concerned. It was as if the scales fell from my eyes. What a revelation!

The book was dedicated to Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Until then I’d never heard of this eminent Russian geneticist, the ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’, who subsequently became something of a scientific hero of mine.

Edited by wheat breeder Sir Otto Frankel and FAO scientist Dr Erna Bennett, both pioneers of the 1960s genetic resources movement, this book was essential reading for anyone entering the new field of conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett

It emerged from a technical conference held at FAO headquarters in Rome on 18-26 September 1967, and comprised 44 chapters penned by many if not most of the leading lights then in genetic conservation and crop and forestry specialists from around the world. As Sir Otto wrote in the preface, the book attempts to define and develop the principles underlying the various stages of exploration, conservation and utilization. Its usefulness will depend on the degree to which it succeeds in illuminating practical problems, rather than offering prescriptions or instructions.

In the course of my own entry into the world of plant genetic resources, I came to meet and become friends with several of the contributors.

The six sections covered topics in: (1) Biological background (the nature of crop diversity, centers of origin, taxonomy); (2) Tactics of exploration and collection; (3) Examples of exploration (crops and forestry); (4) Evaluation and utilization; (5) Documentation, records and retrieval; and (6) Conservation.

It became something of a ‘bible’ for me, and even today, I dip into its many chapters to refresh some of my ideas. Yes, the world of conservation and use of plant genetic resources has moved on significantly since its publication 50 years ago. Just think of the remarkable advances in molecular biology and genomics that nowadays open up a whole new dimension to our understanding of variation among important crop species and their wild relatives. And the impressive progress in computing for both data analysis as well as data management for crop germplasm collections. Fifty years ago, many things that we consider routine today were then but a pipe dream, if they were even on someone’s intellectual horizon.

I really do believe that anyone contemplating a career in plant genetic conservation as I was, 50 years ago, would benefit from delving into Frankel and Bennett, not only to appreciate how the genetic resources movement started in the 1960s, but also just how we have come in the five decades since.


*These are the papers from the California group of Clausen, Keck and Hiesey:

  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1934. Experimental taxonomy. Yearb. Carneg. Inst. 33, 173-177.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1939. The concept of species based on experiment. Amer. J. Bot. 26, 103-106.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1940. Experimental studies on the nature of species. I. Effect of varied environments on western North American plants. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 520.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1945. Experimental studies on the nature of species. II. Plant evolution through amphiploidy and autoploidy, with examples from the Madiinae. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 564.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck, & WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III. Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 581.
  • Clausen J & WM Hiesey, 1958. Experimental studies on the nature of species. IV. Genetic structure of ecological races. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 615.

 

I don’t need a ‘world-beater’ system

My take on and with credit to the creator, ‘Radcliffe’, of a WW2 poster, probably post-1940.

Nor do I need weasel words.

Frankly, I’m sick to death of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic not taking leadership seriously.

This Covid-19 pandemic seems to have brought out the worst in Boris Johnson and his sycophantic cohorts. And what can I say about the biggest liar in politics today, POTUS 45, Donald J. Trump? I certainly don’t want to hear his dangerous ‘advice’.

And that’s before I turn my attention to the latest Westminster comings and goings. No apologies for the ‘deliberate’ pun.

What has got my particular goat this time? Well, during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons last Wednesday (20 May), Boris Johnson was asked about the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis by the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. Johnson replied that a ‘world-beating test, track and trace system’ would be in place by 1 June. That’s now less than a week away, and there’s little evidence that delivery of this system is on track at the same pace as Johnson’s hyperbole.

World-beating system? For expletive deleted’s sake! What a typical fatuous answer to a reasonable question to a government that has, so far, made a real hash of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, including (but by no means limited to) lack of testing, shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and, until forced into a memorable U-turn last week, insistence that foreign workers in the National Health Service (NHS) would still be required to pay a surcharge for the very service they help to keep running.

Anyway, returning to Johnson’s ‘world-beating’ system. Just think about those meaningless words. What do they bring to mind? What, in reality, do they mean, and under the present circumstances what relevance do they have to anything that is taking place as we struggle to bring this pandemic under control. It’s a typical politician response (like ‘ramping up the efforts’, or ‘working around the clock’) to make it appear that things are moving faster and better than they really are.

I don’t need to be world beating [1]. I need to believe that the measures the government has or is putting in place are fit for purpose. I’ve blogged about this ‘fit for purpose’ fixation of mine before.

It’s interesting to note that until recently the government was keen on trumpeting (in its daily press conferences) about how well the UK was doing compared to other countries in terms of the number of deaths reported. Until, that is, the UK move to the top of the league table. Suddenly that statistic was no longer welcome.

From the outset, the government’s message seemed to be clear. We had to work together to defeat the virus by staying at home. This was the message, repeated almost ad nauseam at every opportunity . . .

Being over 70, my wife and I have self isolated since mid-March, taking just one permitted short period of exercise outside each day and, in my case, doing a weekly shop at our nearest supermarket. I would have preferred home deliveries to protect myself from the risk of infection while shopping. We could never get a delivery slot.

It seems that the government’s focus at the beginning of the pandemic was to protect the National Health Service (NHS) so that it was not overwhelmed. However, care homes have been hit hard during the pandemic, with a disproportionately high number of Covid-19 related deaths among residents.

Anyway, ‘stay at home’ was the message being pushed by the government.

Until it no longer was. Then we were asked to stay alert and control the virus. Whatever that ambiguous message meant . . .

Until this change in emphasis in government message, the guidelines were clear: break the rules and everyone would suffer the consequences.

Unless, of course, your name happens to be Dominic Cummings (below), Senior Adviser to Boris Johnson in No 10 Downing St.

On Friday evening last, the news broke that Cummings had, at the beginning of lockdown in March (and before the government’s message changed), driven more than 250 miles north of London to ‘self isolate’ at a property in Durham owned by his parents, taking his wife (who had Covid-19 symptoms) and his four year old son. Furthermore, and this point is disputed (‘palpably false’, according to Johnson), is that Cummings was seen at Barnard Castle, about 30 miles from Durham, during his self-professed isolation.

One rule for them, and one for us? Just when the government has begun to plot a course to bring the country out of lockdown, while still encouraging everyone to obey the ‘stay at home’ rules if showing Covid-19 symptoms, the actions taken by his Senior Adviser have, according to public opinion, undermined the very policy that Cummings himself (it is believed) helped to put together.

And, in response to the inevitable backlash from a tired public that had faithfully stuck to the guidelines under circumstances far more challenging than those that prompted Cummings to up sticks and head north, several senior politicians (Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak) tweeted support (now deleted it seems) of Cummings, at the behest it is reported of government whips, and promptly had their faces covered in egg . . .

Yet more weasel words, only added to by Johnson himself at a car crash of a press conference yesterday, Sunday evening, claiming that Cummings had acted responsibly, legally and with integrity, adding disingenuously that he followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that.

Even as Johnson was responding to questions from journalists, Twitter was alive with condemnation, including some choice comments from me . . .

Almost immediately I tweeted this . . .

Followed shortly after by . . .

I thought I’d contact my local Bromsgrove MP, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, who famously resigned on 13 February this year . . .

It’s remarkable how quickly the condemnation of both Johnson and Cummings spread on social media, including from some Conservative MPs. And an anonymous civil servant who, having access to the Civil Service’s official Twitter account, posted this . . .

The tweet was quickly deleted after ten minutes, but not before it had been seen and retweeted more than 32,000 times, and even broadcast on the BBC’s afternoon Covid-19 news special.

Undoubtedly it will be career end for this (so far) anonymous civil servant, whose action was widely praised, even leading Harry Potter author JK Rowling to tweet . . .

Today (25 May) the newspapers are full of the Cummings debacle. Almost. Tory-supporting The Sun decided to focus on the back-to-school policy that the government is pushing, and which was re-emphasised shortly after Johnson’s disastrous press conference.

While two other right wing rags, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express published headlines supporting Johnson, surprisingly the Daily Mail (that is so far right it meets itself coming the other way) came out against the Prime Minister’s stance. Click on the image below to enlarge.

After three days, Cummmings has become the story. I suspect he’ll be gone by the end of the week. Johnson also, perhaps? One can hope. While our system of government depends on collective cabinet responsibility, being at the helm the buck stops with Johnson. I wonder when collective responsibility will begin to fracture?

At the onset of the pandemic, Johnson had just won his Brexit vote in Parliament, and the UK formally left the European Union on 31 January. His long-awaited Brexit agenda was about to be fulfilled, even though we are in a transition arrangement until the end of the year. Unless there’s an extension. I have the strong opinion that, obsessed by Brexit, Johnson simply took his eye off the pandemic ball.

He is reportedly not a details person. A characteristic, along with constant bad hair days, he has in common with Donald Trump.

Covid-19 could be the nemesis for both despicable individuals. This Cummings affair could see the demise of Johnson sooner rather than later, but with so many mediocre politicians surrounding him, I worry about who might replace him.

Hopefully the US electorate will vote overwhelmingly blue come the November election, and oust DJT, only the third president to be impeached, and also to have won an election by losing the popular poll by more than 3 million votes.

We demand better leadership to beat this insidious virus. That’s not something that Johnson and Trump are interested in, it seems, or even understand.  Time to say bye-bye.


But to finish on a lighter note . . .

Last Friday, as the Cummings story broke, this Song for Dominic Cummings video was released by Dillie Keane, a member of the trio Fascinating Aïda. Enjoy, but watch out for some ‘serious’ language (especially in any other of their videos that might follow on).


[1] Since I wrote this piece a few days ago (it’s now Saturday 30 May), the so-called ‘world beating system’ was launched last Thursday. From all accounts the launch has been a shambles, and indeed there are calls for lockdown to remain in place much longer.

This appeared in today’s The Guardian from one of the ‘tracers’ about the launch of the track and trace system. Damning!


 

Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.

 

 

 

 

Doe, a deer, a female deer . . .

No, not The Sound of Music, but The Story of Music.

I’ve just finished reading the excellent The Story of Music, written by English composer of musicals, choral music, and music for television, Howard Goodall to accompany his six-part BBC TV series broadcast between January and March 2013. Here’s an interesting book review.

I have also just watched all six episodes that some kind soul uploaded to YouTube, which I have shared below. They really are worth six hours of your time.

At a time when we can call up any genre of music, composer, or even specific composition via the Internet, on our phones, or even ask Alexa, it’s quite an eye-opener (or should that be ‘ear-opener’) to realise that hasn’t always been the case. In the introduction to each episode of the TV series. and early on in his book, Goodall makes two assertions (that I have no reason to challenge whatsoever) that had never crossed my mind before.

First, he states that many people in centuries past might go weeks, months even (or perhaps longer) without hearing any music whatsoever. Music had really only been accessible to a narrow stratum of society, commissioned by and composed for the aristocracy.

And second, until the age of recording began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, someone might hear their favorite piece of music maybe four or five times only in their entire life.

Now with the likes of Classic FM or Scala Radio here in the UK, a wide range of music is instantly available to millions upon millions of listeners.

I have extremely broad tastes in music, catholic tastes even, as I blogged about in the context of being cast away on a desert island. There’s much so-called ‘classical music’ that I’m fond of, the piano works of Chopin in particular. But I also regularly listen to ragtime, some jazz, and rock and pop. In fact, a day isn’t a day unless I’ve been listening to music for a minimum of six hours or more. Access to music is something that’s keeping me going under Covid-19 lockdown.

And even though I learnt to (passably) play the cello when I was in high school in the 1960s, I never did develop any musicological ability. In fact, looking back on it, I wonder how I managed to read music at all. It’s all squiggles on a page to me now. I wouldn’t recognise a diminished chord or a triad if they hit me in the face. So why this ‘sudden’ interest in music?

Well, about five or six weeks ago as I was enjoying my early morning cup of tea in bed, I was listening to a lovely composition by Mozart on Classic FM. That got to thinking about the complexity of his music, and other eighteenth century composers like JS Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn and others, and why music almost overnight changed from what had gone before.

I decided to ask my friend Kevin Painting, who pointed me in the direction of The Story of Music. And then he sent me a YouTube link to Episode 2 about composition in the eighteenth century, The Age of Invention. That’s when I found all six episodes, and realised that I had, in fact, watched the series seven years ago, but it had completely slipped my mind.

Spanning 30,000 years or more (from cave dwellers in France) to modern times, Howard Goodall states that there are many ways to tell the story of music. This is his way. It’s unpretentious, clear, and excellent in demonstrating how techniques developed in earlier centuries still influence composition today, even the music of The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga and thousands more.

And this is a particular point that Goodall emphasises time and again. Musical progression didn’t happen by chance. Someone sat down and ‘invented’ them.

Although some of the musicology left me flummoxed, I turned to the videos to hear what Goodall was explaining in the book. Taken together, these are an excellent—and uplifting—resource for anyone interested in music.

I’ll never take music for granted again. Enjoy the videos.


Episode 1: The Age of Discovery – traces the development of music from the religious ‘Gregorian’ chant to the growth of instrumental and folk music between 1000 and 1600.

Episode 2: The Age of Invention – looks at the fertile musical period between 1650 and 1750, in which many of the musical innovations we take for granted today were invented.

Episode 3: The Age of Elegance & Sensibility – looks at the age in which composers went from being the paid servants of princes and archbishops to working as freelancers.

Episode 4: The Age of Tragedy – examines the music of the middle to late 19th century, in which a craze for operas and music that dealt with death and destiny swept Europe.

Episode 5: The Age of Rebellion – looks at the period when modernism in music arrived, and when the birth of recorded sound changed the way music was heard forever.

Episode 6: The Popular Age – looks at the popular age – the last hundred years in music. A period when classical music seemed to many to be in retreat.

‘Selfie’ has just taken on a new meaning . . .

Self isolation—the new ‘selfie’! Social distancing. New words to add to our vocabularies. How our lives have changed in just two weeks.

These are indeed extraordinary times, unlike most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And all due to the emergence in central China and subsequent pandemic spread of a previously unknown zoonotic coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, that is causing an acute (and deadly for vulnerable individuals) respiratory infection, Covid-19. And while I am a biologist, this blog post is NOT about the virus and its biology. Rather, I’m focusing on some of the issues around and consequences of this pandemic.

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. I never personally experienced the horrors of that man-made conflict nor indeed any conflict. I find it offensive that politicians, some journalists, and others on social media make comparisons to a conflict that most were born after. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I just came across this opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian by Simon Tisdall.

I remember (just) the exigencies of rationing that continued for many years after the end of the war. Also, the difficulties endured during the petrol rationing of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Since then we have not experienced any serious rationing in the UK that I can recall.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is on a different scale. It’s not that the total number of patients infected with the virus has yet come anywhere near the 1918 flu pandemic, for example. But this virus is new, it’s very infectious, and lethality apparently high. The worry is that without appropriate control, the pandemic will outrun the capacity of health services to provide care for those who suffer from an acute infection. Whole countries are closing down. And while some ‘draconian’ measures (including curfews) have been introduced in some countries, these have yet to be imposed in the UK. ‘Yet’ being the appropriate word.

Having seen the shortages of some products in the supermarkets such as rice and pasta, hand sanitizers, cleaning products, and, inexplicably, toilet paper, I do wonder when rationing across the board will become the norm. How this pandemic pans out, everyone will have to become accustomed to a changed world. I’ll return to that theme later on.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . .

Or woman for that matter.

[Disclaimer: My politics are center left. If I’d had the chance (I didn’t as I was working overseas), I would have voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour. So any criticism of politicians below is not aimed at them because of their right wing political stance (which is anathema to me), but simply because I do not believe they are the right people in this time of crisis.]

As President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, ‘. . . the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself‘. It’s apt to remember this under the present circumstances. We fear the unknown. In times of crisis, everyone needs reassurance. And, as Simon Tisdall commented in his opinion piece that I referred to above, the war and wartime analogies only stoke fear.

Step up to the plate our political leaders. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s really unfortunate that in these trying times that the governments of both the UK and USA are led by insincere populists, men who are more concerned about their own image.

Sound-bite Boris Johnson (Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done) is resorting to the same sort of rhetoric in his daily Covid-19 briefings (with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist often standing either side) as he did during the Brexit campaign. Making claims he cannot substantiate, such as we’d defeat the disease in the next 12 weeks. Evidence? That doesn’t seem to matter to this charlatan, whose attention span and lack of interest are legendary. It doesn’t help that at critical points in any press conference and the like his body language betrays his insecurity. Such as rubbing his hand through his shaggy hair. Not the most reassuring action.

As a question from ITV correspondent Robert Peston unfolded just the other day at a No. 10 briefing, Johnson’s habitual smirk evaporated to be replaced by various degrees of alarm, bewilderment, fear even, and not the look of a Prime Minister at the top of his game. This is not what he expected after his December electoral victory giving him an insurmountable 80 seat majority, and the opportunity, he must have believed, to do just whatever his fancy lighted on.

Here is a damning opinion piece from The Guardian by Marina Hyde on 20 March, who writes ‘We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies.’

It seems to me that the UK government has not developed a coherent Covid-19 communications strategy. Have a read of this 21 March piece from BuzzFeed about the behind-the-scenes debates, arguments even, between politicians and experts. At the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, Johnson used his press briefing to suggest, albeit perhaps by accident rather than design, that the old and vulnerable were ‘collateral damage’ during the epidemic. “It is going to spread further“, he said, “and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Yes, that’s indeed a strong possibility. But emanating from the mouth of a politician who is widely mistrusted, and who comes across as callous and self-centered, whatever issue he addresses, it was a communications disaster.

What a message to send out to an already fearful population. Read about that press conference here.

And this appeared in the Sunday Times today.

Dominic Cummings

If true, this is an appalling perspective from the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings (whose credibility among a large swathe of the population has already taken a dive).

And, I’m afraid, Johnson’s often blustering delivery, and lack of clarity on issues that should be unambiguous (his classical references, his use of language that most never use or at the very least understand) have probably exacerbated a situation that was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Communications strategies should deliver straightforward messages in plain language. No ifs or buts. Johnson has catastrophically failed in this respect.

Take the issue of social distancing and whether pubs, clubs and other venues should remain open (until last Friday night when the government finally enforced closure). Clearly millennials (and men in particular) had heard the message that they would be less impacted by Covid-19. They ignored the social distancing advice. And it hasn’t helped that Tim Martin, CEO of pub chain Wetherspoons (arch-Brexiteer and now self-proclaimed ‘epidemiologist’ apparently) could see no reason for pubs to close and went public with his criticism of the decision.

But if I think that the situation is grave here in the UK, just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, a country without a public healthcare system that takes care of the sick, elderly and vulnerable, come what may. Given the behavior and responses of POTUS #45, Donald J Trump, it’s surely time to seriously consider invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Why he is still in power is the question asked in this article on the Slate website.

Here is a leader (a term I use very lightly indeed) who has ‘hunches’ or ‘feels good’ about the situation, ignoring facts, scientific advice and stating things that are palpably false, claiming originally that coronavirus was a hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, and then later stating, once the situation had deteriorated, that he knew all along that it was a pandemic. No change in behavior there. Every press briefing becomes a campaign opportunity. And when challenged, even by the simplest and most straightforward of questions, Trump’s reaction is unbelievable. Just watch him throw a tantrum and verbally attack a journalist a couple of days ago when asked how he would reassure the American people, following a comment from Trump recommending the use of chloroquine against the virus. Extraordinary!

And so, here is another piece from Rolling Stone (from 20 March) that Trump’s live briefings are a danger to public health.

And now, Trump is being hailed as a ‘wartime President’, hoping that it will boost his electability in November’s election — assuming that goes ahead as expected. For heaven’s sake! Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

But if you want to see how any leader should behave, just take a look at this address to the people of Scotland by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 20 March. What a contrast from Johnson and Trump. I’m no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, but she got this just right.


It’s interesting—but also concerning—to think what a changed world will look like. Already, a group of 34 ‘big thinkers’ have waxed lyrical on this very topic just a couple of days ago in the Politico Magazine online.

Just click this link to read their predictions.


At the beginning of this post I suggested that ‘selfie’ had taken on a new meaning: self isolation. Here’s me, taking a selfie while taking a selfie.

Steph and I are self isolating since we are in that elderly, over 70 demographic. But if the weather is fine (like earlier today) we have gone out for a walk. We need the fresh air. So we went along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a few miles from home, and encountered only one or two other walkers while maintaining the necessary social distance.


I came across this the other day. Maybe our antipodean friends will soon be evolving some pandemic language variants.


Stay safe everyone. WASH YOUR HANDS – repeatedly, and thoroughly. Here’s the best demo I’ve yet seen on how to wash your hands properly, using black ink in place of soap to illustrate just how it should be done. Never mind that the commentary is in Spanish. That’s not needed.