“The Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.”

So wrote Rudyard Kipling in his 1911 poem The Glory of the Garden, with its ages old image of a kingdom, state or community as a garden, with all its accompanying connotations of natural growth and development, seasonal change, decay and rebirth.

Rudyard Kipling.  Journalist, short-story writer, novelist, poet—one of the greats of English literature, the 1907 Nobel Laureate in Literature. He died in January 1936, a couple of weeks after his 70th birthday.

During our recent holiday in East Sussex and Kent, Steph and I enjoyed a visit to Bateman’s, the home that Kipling bought in 1902 and where he and his family resided until his death 34 years later.

The House and Quarterdeck (8 on the map below)

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay (Mumbai) on 30 December 1865, the son of John Lockwood Kipling and Alice (née MacDonald). Rudyard. Such an unusual name for a baby boy.

So the story goes, his parents met at a picnic at Rudyard Lake (actually a reservoir to feed the Caldon Canal) in North Staffordshire, less than three miles northwest of my hometown of Leek. It had become popular destination for outings in the 19th century, and still was when I was growing up in the 1950s.

Kipling’s father was working in Burslem in the pottery industry as a designer. John and Alice married in 1865 and moved to India where John had been appointed professor of architectural sculpture in the Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay. He later became its principal.

Inside Bateman’s there are two small paintings, in the Parlour on the ground floor and Kipling’s study upstairs, showing similar scenes of Rudyard Lake, which I am reliably told show an inlet near the dam.

Although raised in India, Kipling returned to England for his early education. He returned to India in 1882, and it was during his time there that he wrote many of the short-stories for which he perhaps became most well-known.

In the exhibition room at Bateman’s there are six first edition copies of stories he published in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh in 1888.

Back in England, Kipling married Caroline Starr Balestier from Vermont in 1895, but they spent the first years of their marriage in the USA, returning to England in 1896. Two of their children, Josephine and Elsie were born in Vermont, and John in Sussex. Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899 during a visit to New York. John was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Irish Guards aged 16 in 1914, and was killed a year later at the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

Christmas cards to the children in 1897, hanging in the Parlour.

Bateman’s is an elegant Jacobean manor house, perhaps the most elegant of all the houses we visited during our week away.

Apparently Bateman’s had no running water or electricity in 1902, and Kipling installed both. He replaced the water wheel at the nearby mill with a turbine, in order to generate electricity. During our visit, the Mill Pond was empty and undergoing conservation work. The National Trust hopes to have the Mill operating again later this year, and milling flour powered by the water wheel.

Inside the house, four rooms on the ground floor are open to the public.

In the Dining Room, the walls are lined with painted leather panels, apparently very old.

At the foot of the stairs, there is an elegant bust of Kipling on a side table, and several paintings adorning the walls.

On the upper floor, the main rooms are Kipling’s study, and John’s bedroom. Another room is full of Kipling memorabilia, including his Nobel Prize citation.

Kipling’s study

Take a look at more photos of the house and gardens here.

Although I’m familiar with what Kipling wrote, the Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, and many others, I have to admit that I have never read any of his works. Having been inspired by Bateman’s, perhaps now is the time to load my Kindle and enjoy many of these stories a century or more after they were first published.

Chartwell: a family home where history was written

A recent visit to Chartwell, the family home of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill (he became Sir Winston, a Knight of the Garter, only in 1953) has left a deep impression on me.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with Churchill’s contribution to national life and politics over decades. His life must be one of the most thoroughly documented of any statesman in this country. Not least because of the various memoirs that he wrote, from his early adventures as an army officer in India and South Africa to his long life in politics, and the many biographies penned about him.

At Chartwell, that history becomes tangible. So many personal possessions, awards, and other memorabilia fill the house. There’s a real sense of connection with the great man.

During his lifetime Churchill attracted his fair share of controversy, and in some respects that has not waned. I’m no apologist for Winston Churchill. What is incontrovertible, however, is the crucial role that he played in securing victory over Nazi Germany during the Second World War. He took the helm of government when the nation demanded decisive leadership. Oh, for such a leader today!

A visit to Chartwell was at the top of the list of National Trust properties during our recent holiday in Kent and East Sussex.

Chartwell lies on the southern outskirts of Westerham in Kent, just five miles west of Sevenoaks (see map).

Chartwell is a rather unprepossessing redbrick house. I’m sure the Churchills did not purchase it (in 1922) for its ‘looks’. More for the views south over the Kent countryside from the terrace (off Lady Churchill’s sitting room on the ground floor), or from the walled garden, which are truly spectacular on a fine day.

The view from the Terrace, overlooking Churchill’s studio, and further southeast over the Weald.

However, there was once feature of the house that did catch my attention. From a distance, the columns either side of the front door look like stone. On closer inspection, they are clearly carved from wood.

Inside Chartwell, however, is a different matter. This was a family home, and we can see it today more or less as the Churchill family lived there in the 1930s. Lady Churchill and one of her daughters advised the National Trust how the rooms should be presented. Much of the furniture is apparently original to the house.

On the ground floor, there are three rooms open to the public: Lady Churchill’s Sitting Room; the Drawing Room; and the Library.

Above the fireplace in Lady Churchill’s Sitting Room is a fine oil painting of her husband of 57 years, one of many paintings and sketches around the house.

There’s a door leading out on to the Terrace from this sitting room.

The Drawing Room is the ‘jewel’ of Chartwell, and it’s not hard to imagine the Churchills entertaining the great and the good in this room.

Over the fireplace is a painting of Colonist II, the French grey thoroughbred colt that Churchill purchased in 1949 when it won its first race for him, and seventeen more during its twenty-four race career.

On the opposite wall, a 1902 painting, Charing Cross Bridge, by Claude Monet, was gift to Churchill. There is also a large painting of Lady Churchill. On a side table behind the sofa stands a large crystal cockerel (probably made by the famous French glassmaker René Lalique) that was a gift to Lady Churchill from Charles de Gaulle.

Also on the ground floor is the Library (not a large room), with two significant exhibits: a bust of US President Franklin D Roosevelt, and a large model (hanging on the wall) of the Port of Arromanches, one of the artificial harbours that played an important role in the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

Moving to the first floor, two rooms, Lady Churchill’s Bedroom and Churchill’s study are open to the public. Two other rooms contain exhibits of the many awards and gifts that Churchill received, and the uniforms he wore.

There are some exquisite Potschappel porcelain figures in the bedroom, but what caught my eye in particular, on a desk at the foot of the bed, are two small framed photographs. One shows his third daughter, and fourth child, Marigold who died in 1921 aged two. The other, equally small photograph is purported to be the last photo taken of Churchill shortly before he died in 1965.

In an Anteroom outside the bedroom there’s a cabinet of Dresden porcelain (one with a portrait of Napoleon, a face seen throughout the house; Churchill was a great admirer of Napoleon), and a wall covered in signed photos. I managed to take photos of two significant figures from the war: General (later Field Marshal) Sir Bernard Montgomery and General Charles de Gaulle.

In the Museum Room, Churchill’s Nobel Prize for Literature (1953) citation and medal, his Honorary US citizenship, and many, many other awards and gifts, too many to mention individually are on display.

Napoleon sits proudly in the center of Churchill’s desk in the Study. On one side of the room, against the wall, stands a mahogany lectern at which Churchill would work, standing up, dictating to one of his secretaries. He apparently had a small army or researchers helping him with his prodigious literary output. Among the most precious artefacts, hanging from the ceiling, is a Union Jack flag, given to Churchill by Earl Alexander of Tunis, who became Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean. This flag was hoisted over Rome, the first Allied flag flown over a liberated city in Europe.

The Dining Room, on the lower ground floor, overlooking the garden, is simply furnished, with two round tables. Churchill insisted on round tables as they encouraged conversation. I commented to another visitor that we could do with a few more round tables in Parliament these days.

Lord Camrose

There is also a painting of William Ewart Berry, Viscount Camrose. Why?

In July 1945, even before the war with Japan had ended victoriously for the Allies, a General Election was held in the UK. Churchill was booted out of office. Extraordinary really, considering the experiences of the previous five years. Worse still for Churchill personally was that he was bankrupt. And to sort his financial predicament he was faced with selling his beloved Chartwell. That’s when an anonymous group of seventeen wealthy individuals¹, headed by Lord Camrose, came to the rescue, and purchased Chartwell for the nation, with the proviso that the Churchills could live there as long as they wished. The names of these benefactors were eventually published in a newspaper; there’s also a plaque with their names at Chartwell.

The National Trust took over Chartwell in 1946/47

Churchill’s studio just below the house is full of many of his oil paintings. This became a serious hobby, and after leaving office in 1945 he thought of selling up and moving to the south of France, and paint all day long.

Many of his paintings that line the studio walls depict Mediterranean scenes.

The gardens and grounds are extensive.

Another of Churchill’s hobbies was brick laying, and he constructed part of one of the walls of the Walled Garden near the Studio.

From the terrace at the top of the Walled Garden is one of the best viewpoints in the whole of Chartwell.

We had arrived to Chartwell just after the café opened at 10 am, and enjoyed a welcome cup of coffee before exploring the gardens. Entry to the house itself is by timed ticket. We opted for the 11 am entry. This system ensures that, with a normal flow of visitors through the house, nowhere becomes particularly congested.

I was amazed that photography was permitted throughout the house and studio. Please look at the more extensive album of photos that I took.

Chartwell had long been on my bucket-list since I read (about 15 years ago or so) an excellent biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins. Mission accomplished!

The visit to Chartwell was undoubtedly the highlight of our holiday in East Sussex and Kent. The NT staff and volunteers were very welcoming—as always—and knowledgeable. Always ready and keen to answer any question, however mundane. They make each visit so much more interesting and worthwhile.

¹Lord Camrose
Lord Bearstead
Lord Bicester
Sir James Caird
Sir Hugo Cunkiffe-Owen
Lord Catto
Lord Glendyne
Lord Kenilworth
Lord Leathers
Sir James Lithgow
Sir Edward Mountain
Lord Nuffield
Sir Edward Peacock
Lord Portal
J. Arthur Rank
James de Rothschild
Sir Frank Stewart

On yer bike . . . !

1886 Rover safety bicycle at the British Motor Museum.

It was the late Professor John Jinks (former head of the Department of Genetics at The University of Birmingham), if memory serves me right, who used to say that the invention of the bicycle, and its wider availability in the last quarter of the 19th century, did more for the genetic health of human communities than almost any other.

Variety is, so they say, the spice of life. And when it comes to genetics, it’s variety (specifically genetic variation) that keeps populations healthy. Too much inbreeding is not a good thing. Just look what happened to the Habsburgs.

So what’s the link between the bicycle and human genetics?

For millennia, human societies comprised isolated rural communities, with limited contact between them. Members of these communities tended to marry among themselves. I think it’s fair to assume there was some degree of inbreeding, only overcome by marriage with members of unrelated (or less related) communities.

But as the Industrial Revolution progressed and agriculture was increasingly mechanized, there were significant demographic changes as people moved into urban areas. By the end of the 19th century more people in England and Wales were living in towns and cities than in rural areas.

Having access to a bicycle, whether one lived in a rural village, a small market town, or a city, meant that a young man could court his sweetheart miles away. No more shank’s pony. More and more couples married who did not live in the same immediate community, and these communities became genetically more diverse. At least that’s the idea, in a nutshell, behind Jinks’s idea.

So I decided to look into the various geographical connections of my family.

Since 1980, my eldest brother Martin has developed a fascinating and comprehensive genealogy web site (just click on the image below) to record our family history. And I’ve delved into that database for this particular post.

While the ancestry on my father’s side of the family can be traced back five centuries, Martin has uncovered information to the beginning of the 19th century only on my mother’s. Her parents were Irish and came over to England at the turn of the 20th century.

However, let’s look at my mother’s side of the family first in a little more detail.

My mum, Lilian (actually Lily) Healy, was born in Shadwell, in the East End of London in April 1908, the second child (and second daughter) of Martin Healy and Ellen Lenane. Mum had five sisters and two brothers.

Mum married Dad, Frederick Jackson, in November 1936.

Wedding on 28 November 1936 in Epsom, Surrey. L-R: Grandma Alice, Grandad Tom, Rebecca (Dad’s sister), Ernest J. Bettley (best man), Dad, Mum, Eileen (Mum’s sister), Grandad Martin, Grandma Ellen.

The Healy and Lenane families (both Catholic) came from Co. Kilkenny and Co. Waterford respectively, some 75-80 miles apart. While the birth and baptism information going back five generations (to my 2nd great grandparents) is not as complete as desirable, there’s every reason to believe that marriages took place between families that lived close to one another.

But my grandparents, Martin and Ellen, did not meet in Ireland.

Born in 1876, Grandad Martin was the seventh of nine children, from Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny. After serving in the Royal Irish Regiment of the British army (Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland at that time) in India (on the Northwest Frontier) and South Africa during the Boer War, he became a police constable in the East End of London. He met Ellen in London and they were married in Wimbledon in January 1905.

Grandma Ellen, born in 1878, near Youghal on the southern coast of Ireland in Co. Waterford, was the second eldest of 13 children, although we don’t know how many survived childhood. I also discovered, to my surprise (although thinking about it, I’m not sure why I should be surprised), that she was an Irish speaker.

Both families came through the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. But at what cost?

My mother once told me that some of her parents’ siblings emigrated to the USA. Others took up arms following the 1916 Easter Rising, and perhaps also during the Irish Civil War, on the Republican side. How much of this is true I have no way of confirming. But it adds another interesting dimension to the Healy-Lenane story.

Now let me turn to my father’s family.

My father, Fred Jackson, is from Staffordshire-Derbyshire stock. He was born in Burton on Trent in 1908. Grandad Tom (born in 1872 in Burton) was profoundly deaf since a young age, and never served in the armed forces. Grandma Alice (born 1880), was Tom’s second wife. Not only raising four children of her own (Winifred, Fred, Edgar, and Rebecca), she was stepmother to Alice and Bill.

Tom and Alice celebrated their Golden Wedding with family and friends in Hollington in 1954, and their Diamond Wedding in 1964 at the home of Wynne (their elder daughter and my dad’s elder sister) where they had moved after leaving their home of decades in Hollington.

Golden Wedding celebration in August 1954. Sitting, left to right: Fred, Wynne, Grandad Tom (with cousin Timothy on his knee), Grandma Alice (holding cousin Caroline, I believe), Bill, and Alice. Their other daughter, Rebecca, is standing on the back row, fifth from the left. I’m sitting on the grass, front left.

Diamond Wedding in August 1964.

Our ancestry can be traced through Grandma Alice Bull as far back as the late 15th century. I’m the 13th great-grandson of someone named Bull, whose son Thomas was born around 1505 in Ellastone on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. As shown on the map below (just zoom in for more details) many of my Bull ancestors (shown in red) came from Ellastone, Cubley, and Hollington (a five mile radius from Cubley) and, in the main, married spouses from the same village or one nearby. But there are a few examples where spouses came from much further away, and it would be interesting to know how the various individuals came to meet in the first place, never mind marrying.

The geographical origins of the Jacksons (shown in blue) are a little more widespread, although coming from southeast Derbyshire in the main. Grandad Jackson lived and worked in Burton, and after the death of his first wife Maria Bishop, I’m not sure how he came to know Alice (who was living in Hollington, about 12 miles on foot), marrying her two years after he became a widower.

Several generations of my forebears were agricultural laborers, some were coal merchants (maybe with a horse and cart for traveling around). Nothing particularly noteworthy.

We are fortunate (thanks to Martin’s impressive research – and others who are also researching many of the same family branches) to have such a fine record for our ancestry. Each time I look through the database I think about the life and times of these forebears of mine. What sort of lives did they really lead? How were they impacted by national events like the Civil War of the 1640s, or the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, for example. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie marched his men right through the area where the Bull family lived, before reaching Derby. Or even international events such as the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo for example, or the Crimean War of the 1850s.

Just plotting their birthplaces on a map (it’s the geographer in me) gives me a sense of belonging. At heart, I am a Staffordshire man.

It’s all in the timing . . .

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

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

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

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

Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had a dream . . .

Well, more of a nightmare, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect Brexit storm

I have voted Conservative just once, in the June 1970 General Election that brought Ted Heath to power. It was the first election in which I was eligible to vote, aged 21 (although the voting age had been lowered to 18 in January of that year).

Now, wild horses couldn’t drag me into the polling booth to vote for the Conservative Party. Nor for Labour either, while Jeremy Corbyn remains Leader.

I can’t remember a more chaotic situation in British politics than we are currently experiencing. Politics is broken. Indeed, it’s hard to remember when politics was held in such low esteem nationwide; respect for politicians has evaporated.

And the cause? Brexit, of course, which has thrown politics into disarray. And while the same tribal party loyalties affect most parliamentary decisions, perspectives on Brexit or No Brexit, Leave or Remain, cut right across party lines and policies.

No wonder then that eight MPs resigned from the Labour Party last week and formed The Independent Group (TIG), joined by three Conservative MPs. Another Labour MP has resigned from the party, but not joined TIG.

Prime Minister Theresa May is the Death Star of British politics and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn is a politician of low intellectual calibre which, alloyed with rigid and obstinately held ideological beliefs, renders him stupefied, or stupid, or both.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May

Not my descriptions, I should add, although they are ones that resonate with me. No, they come from the pen of  long-time Conservative supporter, former Conservative Member of Parliament for West Derbyshire, and newspaper columnist, Matthew Parris.

Writing in The Times last Friday, 22 February, he wrote what is probably one of the most damning indictments of two party leaders that I have ever read. But particularly damning of Theresa May. Click on the image below to read the article in full.

With just 32 days before the UK is due to leave the European Union (EU), potentially crashing out without a deal if the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated over many months with the EU is once again rejected by Parliament, Theresa May has again kicked the ‘Brexit can’ down the road. Parliament will not hold a ‘meaningful vote‘ to decide the future of that agreement until 12 March. FFS! Pardon my language.

You can imagine some of the reactions. Mike Galsworthy is a leading Remain campaigner.

And this, despite the EU and European Commission consistently stating that negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened to rework the wording over the Irish backstop.

Now listen to former Conservative MP (and TIG member) Anna Soubry commenting on Theresa May’s leadership and her obsession with immigration that seems to be driving her Brexit ‘strategy’.

Anna Soubry is not the only person concerned about Theresa May’s approach to Brexit. Philosopher and author AC Grayling tweeted this message a couple of days ago.

Here’s another view from Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley Jess Phillips.

Corbyn has led a totally ineffective Opposition throughout the whole Brexit process. Labour should be points ahead in the polls. Instead they are lagging behind the Conservatives. Extraordinary! Corbyn appears more concerned about winning a General Election, and implementing a ‘real’ Socialist agenda than he is about Brexit and its impact on the nation. Post-Brexit, the country won’t be able to afford his vision.

Because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, Parliament will have to vote to hold a General Election, if Theresa May decides to call one. Corbyn will find himself on a very sticky wicket. Because of his consistent calls for an election, Labour can hardly vote against such a motion even though recent polls don’t give them much hope of success.

Unless . . . ?

Unless Labour openly support a second referendum or People’s Vote (that seems to be the favored option among the electorate). Clearly, there is a groundswell of support for such a vote, even within Labour.

So, with the nation staring down the barrel of a Brexit gun, who knows what the outcome will be, after 29 March. Brexit has opened fissures in both main political parties that are unlikely to heal very quickly. Is this the beginning of a realignment in British politics? Only time will tell. Brexit has caused the perfect storm.





Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler

We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.

The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.

I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.