No longer carrying coals to Newcastle*

Steph and I moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne at the beginning of October, leaving Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and the West Midlands far behind. Just under 230 miles behind, in fact.

We have a six month rental on a nice house in the Shiremoor district of the city (North Tyneside Council) while we wait for the purchase of our new home to go through. We were fortunate to find somewhere to buy very soon after we made the move. Let’s hope the whole transaction goes more smoothly than did the sale of our Bromsgrove house.


And already we are enjoying getting to know the immediate surrounding area, and a little further afield, although the current Covid-19 lockdown restrictions don’t permit us to travel very far. We are fortunate that one of the closest beaches, at Seaton Sluice, is just 10 minutes away by car, and we have already enjoyed several walks between there and Blyth (a couple of miles or so north along the beach), to Cresswell and Druridge Bay somewhat further north, part way along a wooded valley known as Holywell Dene, to Plessey Woods with the grandchildren and, a few weeks back (before the latest lockdown came into force), we revisited the National Trust’s Cragside, a magnificent Victorian mansion that was built on the open moors near Rothbury in Northumberland.


Since my retirement in 2010, I took to walking almost everyday, weather permitting, as a replacement for the badminton I used to play regularly in the previous decade in Los Baños in the Philippines. As I have written in many blog posts, Walking with my mobile, I explored Bromsgrove and the surrounding district. I tried to walk at least a couple of miles each time (sometimes further), but for a minimum of 45 minutes as recommended. Not that I always achieved that.

Anyway, I did wonder what the walking would be like here in the northeast, close to home. And I haven’t been disappointed. What a delight! There’s a rich legacy of an important industrial past, a heritage in fact.

Heavy industry, and the economic wellbeing of this area north and south of the River Tyne were, for centuries, dependent on the mining of coal (‘black gold’), and the various quays along the river became among the most important in the world for the export of coal, much of it going south to warm the houses of the metropolis, London. But also further afield.

The Northumberland and Durham Coalfields (north and south of the Tyne) are one and the same larger coalfield, often referred to as the Great Northern Coalfield. And the area northeast of Newcastle city center, where we are currently living, is dotted with former coal mines and spoil heaps. But they have, to all intents and purpose, disappeared from the landscape. Mines were closed up to 40 years ago, and the pithead infrastructure was mostly demolished. Only in a few places do any building survive. Spoil heaps were flattened, the landscape rehabilitated, and these open spaces allocated for building, or parks like the Silverlink Biodiversity Park that is just a mile from our home.

But what is more remarkable—and I’m going to have to do more research and blog more extensively in the future—is the network of paths, 150 miles of them in North Tyneside alone that have become not only an important recreation and leisure amenity for everyone to enjoy (walking, cycling, and horse riding) but they are important biodiversity corridors into the city with many bird species, and mammals such as deer, rabbits, and hares. I’ve not seen any deer or hares yet, but rabbits and many bird species are quite common.

So why all these paths? Well, they are the disused trackbeds of railways built to haul the coal from the collieries north of the River Tyne down to the coal wharfs (or staithes), where it was loaded on to waiting ships. These paths are called waggonways.

Each mine or colliery built its own. Originally coal trucks ran on wooden rails. With the development of steam power, engine houses were built to lower and raise sets of wagons to the river, attached to cables. At the beginning of the 20th century these were replaced by steam locomotives that ran up and down the waggonways with their full load to the staithes, and empty on the return journey back to the mines. These photos were taken along the Cramlington Waggonway, which is the closest to home, less than a quarter of a mile.

I need to find so much more about the waggonways and the history of coal mining in this area. That should keep me busy for quite some time. In the meantime, we shall enjoy exploring these unique routes through the city, and the biodiversity that they harbor.


Much as we are enjoying walking along the waggonways, I have to mention the wanton and I guess mostly lazy littering that we have noticed along the paths. But some quite deliberate as I saw a bag of household waste tossed into the bushes. Much of the litter comprises used beer cans or plastic water bottles, some plastic bags. But, in these Covid times, also an increasing number of disposable face masks.

Now whether littering on this scale is endemic in the ‘local culture’ so to speak or, because of the pandemic, North Tyneside Council is unable to deploy workers to clear up the litter, I have no idea. But it is a sad reflection on a certain section of the local community that they feel they can pollute these environments in the way they do.


* The saying ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ means to do or bring something superfluous or unnecessary, and has been in use since at least the 1500s. So what is its basis? As a major coal-exporting town, it would have been a worthless endeavor to try and sell coal from outside the local coalfields in Newcastle itself. And so, the saying gained a wider currency signifying something unnecessary.


 

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.

Our Northumbrian adventure begins . . .

I first visited the northeast of England in the summer of 1967. I was 18. And then, a couple of years later, I joined a group of Northumbrian pipers and dancers from Newcastle upon Tyne to perform at a bagpipe festival in the Czech town of Strakonice. Before heading for Czechoslovakia (as it was in those days) we met up in Newcastle to get to know one another, and form Morris and rapper sword dance teams. And get some practice!

In 1998, Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, the county immediately south of the border with Scotland, and one of England’s largest counties. Until 1974, Newcastle was part of Northumberland, but then the metropolitan county of Tyne & Wear was created.

Northumberland is a magnificent county. There are awe-inspiring landscapes, beaches that stretch to the horizon, and millennia of history, including remarkable Roman remains dotted across the county, the world famous Hadrian’s Wall in particular.

Most of the county is rural. Settlements grew up on the coast, exploiting the once-abundant fishing in the North Sea, or mining ‘black gold’—coal seams that stretch for miles under the sea. Fishing stocks declined, coal pits closed. The once prosperous coastal towns and mining villages are now looking beyond tourism for a brighter future.

In 2000, our younger daughter Philippa enrolled at the University of Durham (16 miles south of Newcastle) so we would visit her there over the next three years when back in the UK on home leave from the Philippines where I had been working since 1991 in rice research.

In 2005, Philippa returned to the northeast and took a research post in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. Between then and when we retired back to the UK in 2010, we visited her in Newcastle on several occasions, and have traveled there a couple of times a year once we had resettled in Bromsgrove.

Steph and Philippa on the banks of the River Tyne in the center of Newcastle in July 2007. That’s the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in the distance, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art to the right, and the shiny building (top right) is the culture hall, Sage Gateshead.

In 2010, Philippa married Andi and they settled in the Heaton district of Newcastle. Elvis and Felix were born in September 2011 and September 2013. She completed her PhD in 2010 and joined the faculty of Northumbria University.

Family get-together in Bromsgrove in mid-August 2019.

Our elder daughter Hannah and her family—husband Michael, and Callum (10) and Zoë (8)—live in St Paul, Minnesota, and since 2010, we have traveled to visit them each year (as well as having a video call every week). But not this year, unfortunately.

For several years, both Philippa and Hannah have been encouraging us to sell our home of 39 years in Bromsgrove and move north to Newcastle. Well, as you might imagine, we were comfortably settled, it was hard to even think about such a move. But the more we did, weighing up all the advantages of being closer to family since we’re not getting any younger, and while we are still in good health, moving to Newcastle didn’t seem such a crazy idea after all.

In November 2019 we decided to take a look at the housing market in Newcastle, and again when we visited over Christmas. We made the decision. We would move in 2020, so put our house on the market in January this year. The Covid-19 pandemic almost scuppered our plans, and although we didn’t make our original deadline of mid-year to be in Newcastle, we have now arrived. Just two weeks ago, and have taken a small rental property for the next six months.

What’s even more remarkable is that we have already found a house to buy, made an offer that was accepted, and have begun the conveyancing to purchase. It’s actually not too far from where we are currently living in the northeast of the city, towards the coast.

Last week (the day before Steph’s birthday), and it being a bright sunny day, we headed to Seaton Sluice just five miles away on the coast to enjoy the sea air. I’ve never lived by the sea (if you discount the time I was a student in Southampton, which is a major seaport, and not close to any beaches). Steph hails from Southend on Sea in Essex, and grew up just stone’s throw from stretches of beach where the Thames estuary meets the North Sea.

Now we have the opportunity of walking along the beach any time the fancy takes us. And that’s just what we did on the 7th, and yesterday. We have walked the beach at Seaton Sluice in the past with Philippa and the family. But these were our first walks as residents, so to speak.

I still have to pinch myself that we can hop in the car, and in just over ten minutes can be walking on the beach. On the 7th we couldn’t park at the usual carpark; it was occupied by maintenance workers who were doing some engineering work on the beach. So we parked further south on Rocky Island, and walked along the beach. On our second visit, we headed further north.

What an exhilarating feeling, watching the waves roll in and crash on the beach. The strong breeze blowing the cobwebs away. We even saw an Atlantic grey seal enjoying an early lunch during our first walk.

These are just the first two of many more walks to come and enjoy. Thus begins our Northumbrian adventure. Watch this space . . .

Moving house: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Selling and moving house is, they say, one of life’s more stressful episodes. And, from personal experience, I can vouch for that. But it has not always been that way.

Steph and I have moved house several times, and across continents: from the UK to Peru in 1973; from Peru to Costa Rica in 1976; from Costa Rica back to the UK in 1981; and to the Philippines and back in 1991 and 2010. However, none of these moves was as stressful as our most recent one. That’s because we never had a house to sell as well.

As I’ll relate later on, the actual move out of our home of more than 39 years in Bromsgrove and move into a rental property in Newcastle upon Tyne, was really rather straightforward. It was all the months and weeks leading up to the actual sale of our house, and particularly the last month, that caused all the stress, almost a meltdown even.

Let’s go back to the beginning
Since July 1981 we have lived in Bromsgrove, a relatively small market town in north-east Worcestershire, just 13 miles or so south of the center of Birmingham. But with our two daughters grown up, married, and with families of their own, and Steph and me not getting any younger (we’re both in our early 70s) we took the decision about a year ago to move away from Bromsgrove, and relocate in the Newcastle upon Tyne area of north-east England where our younger daughter Philippa lives with her family: husband Andi and sons Elvis and Felix. Moving closer to our elder daughter Hannah and her family was not an option. They live in St Paul, Minnesota!

Philippa with Elvis and Felix outside our rental home in Newcastle on Steph’s birthday, 8 October.

So, in early January we asked several estate agents (realtors in US parlance) to tender for the sale of our house, eventually settling on a local firm, Robert Oulsnam and Company that had a branch in Bromsgrove’s High Street. We chose this firm not only for its very competitive quotation (at just 0.5% of final sale price) but because we felt they put the client first. They were interested to know what we wanted to achieve whereas other agencies just gave us the ‘hard sell’ why we should choose them, their fantastic record of sales, notwithstanding that they valued our house significantly lower than did Oulsnams. We would never have achieved the price we did had we gone with one of the other estate agents. 

By mid-January, the details of No. 4 had been posted online, featured in the local newspapers, and circulated to a list of prospective buyers. A sign went up in the front garden: For Sale!

Viewings were not brisk, to say the least, which rather surprised us given the excellent location of our house: within five minutes walk of two of the best first and middle schools in town, and 10 minutes walk in opposite directions to the town center or the newly-refurbished rail station.


Pandemic lockdown . . . and recovery from the first wave
I guess there were about ten or so viewings up to mid-March, by which time the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning to surge. By the middle of March Steph and I had already begun to self-isolate, and decided not to take any more viewings. Except for one. Before we self-isolated we had received a request for a viewing a week hence, so decided to honor that one. In any case during most of the viewings we had not been in the house, and had taken the opportunity for a daily walk.

Then, that was that. The Covid lockdown came into force, estate agents closed up shop for the time being, and all went quiet. We did wonder whether it would in fact be better to forget all about a move in 2020, and park the idea until 2021.

As the first wave of the pandemic passed towards late May, and parts of the economy were allowed to open once again, estate agents resumed their activities. And almost immediately we received a request for second viewing: from the couple who were the last ones to view the house before lockdown. The next day they made an offer, at a price much lower than we were prepared to accept. I made a counter offer, and within an hour this was accepted. Sold! Things were on the up. Or so we thought.

Our solicitor told us that the conveyancing process would take six to nine weeks. We never expected sixteen. That’s because there was a ‘chain’ of three buyers below us. And unforeseen delays.

We had already decided that we would sell our house first, then move into rental property in Newcastle, using that as a base to look for a new home. Even without the pandemic making life and travel difficult, trying to look for a house 240 miles away from home was almost impossible.


Getting ready to move
Did we jump the gun? By the end of June we had selected a removal company, under the impression that the sale would go through by the beginning of August. This wasn’t a bad idea, because we then began to go through our many years of accumulated ‘stuff’ and discard what we no longer needed, and boxing those we intended to take north, books in particular. Boxes and boxes of them. We also decided to dispose of the large (and very heavy) leather sofa and armchair we had acquired way back in August 1976 just after moving to Costa Rica. It was not only beginning to show its age, but we knew it would probably be too big for a smaller house that we would move into. Reluctantly we also gave away the dining table, six chairs, and sideboard, all made from cristobal, a tropical hardwood found in Costa Rica. Fortunately our next door neighbors were interest to take these off our hands. We had to send the sofa and armchair to landfill. I wasn’t able to upcycle those.

Our neighbor Dave (center) with his brother Nigel and nephew after we’d removed all the pieces of furniture from No. 4

July came, as did August and there was no movement in the chain below us, as the buyers at the bottom of the chain and in the middle negotiated for mortgages. Our buyers were keen to move in by 1 September, which would have suited us fine. No one could agree on a date to exchange contracts, the point at which a house is legally sold. Because we were still looking for a house to rent, we asked for three weeks between exchange of contracts and completion, the day we would have to move out. 

I’d had my eye on one property in Newcastle for a few weeks, which I knew we could rent on a six month tenancy. Six month tenancies are as rare as hen’s teeth; landlords mostly want tenants for a minimum of one year. I negotiated the tenancy aware that we could not sign any agreement until our house was sold, i.e. we had exchanged contracts. So, around 14 September I proposed to everyone in our buying/selling chain (through solicitors, of course) that we should agree on a completion date of 30 September. This would allow just two weeks for us to complete the tenancy background checks and the like. 

Finally it was agreed that contracts would be exchanged on Wednesday 23 September, even less than the two weeks that I had compromised to. So, with anticipation and some nervousness, the 23rd dawned and we sat around waiting for confirmation that this next important stage had been completed, leaving us free to sign a tenancy agreement. You can imagine my reaction when, around 4 pm, I received a phone call from my solicitor telling me that the exchange had fallen through. There had been a last minute ‘glitch’ involving the sale of our buyer’s house. I felt desperate.

By late afternoon on the Thursday, it seemed as if the ‘glitch’ had been resolved and we were promised exchange of contracts the following morning. By 2.30 pm that Friday afternoon we’d still not heard anything, and concerned that the exchange would ‘fail’ once again, I phoned my solicitor who was as perplexed as we were why things had not gone through until then (all handled through phone calls) since the ‘exchange’ had begun that same morning around 9.30 am.

Then, around 3.10 pm there was another call: exchange completed! Having already carefully scrutinised our tenancy agreement line by line over the previous couple of days, I immediately digitally signed my copy and submitted it online. That generated a copy for Steph to sign, and once she had submitted her digital copy, the tenancy agreement was wrapped up. Relief all round. We’d have a roof over our heads after moving out of No. 4 on the 30th.

I also had to confirm the move with our removal company, Robinsons Relocation. I guess we’d given them the run around over the previous couple of weeks, pencilling our removal date for the 30th but not able to confirm this until the last moment.

On my 70th birthday in November 2018, my bank manager had sent me a bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut champagne. We never could find a good excuse or opportunity to open it. Until that Friday night.

Over the next few days, we completed our packing, and clearing the last remaining items in the garage and garden that I needed to take to the local waste disposal and recycling center. 


The move
It felt strange at No. 4 the night before the move. Our last night there after more than 39 years. Over those decades Steph had created a lovely garden, so we enjoyed a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, and wandered around the garden. Steph had taken cuttings from many of her favorite plants and these had been crated up in anticipation of the move. 

We were up with the larks next morning, the 30th, and after a quick breakfast, we packed away the final items that were still in use in the kitchen. 

Our removals company was due at 8.30 am, but they actually turned up fifteen minutes early. And got immediately to work, despite the rather dank and dreary weather. It began to rain more or less as they arrived, but fortunately had cleared within the hour.

The removals team were three: Paul, Kyle, and Harrison (aka ‘H’). Since we’d already done all of the packing ourselves, Paul and his team only had to load everything on their truck. I say ‘only load’, yet some items were quite heavy and cumbersome, and one large Ikea bookshelf had to be dismantled (yes, they are as complicated to take apart as assemble!).

By 11.30 am everything had been loaded, the van closed up and they were off. I say ‘off’, but back to base in Redditch as they intended to drive up from the West Midlands to Newcastle early the next day.

Then it was time for Steph and me to have a final check around an empty No. 4, make sure everything was ship shape and Bristol fashion as much as we could, grab a quick sandwich, lock the front door, and be on our way. That was about an hour after removers had left, and by then there was a removals van parked outside waiting to move our buyers in. They had to wait until around 3.30 pm to get access to the keys once bank transfers had been confirmed.

Grabbing a quick sandwich after all had been cleared. And a final photo in front of No. 4.

With that, we hit the road heading for Newcastle, and arriving at our Premier Inn in Shiremoor (less than a mile from our rental property) just after 5 pm. I enjoyed a couple of large beers that night.

The move in . . . 
Around 9.30 on the following morning, 1 October, I had a voicemail message from Paul of Robinsons letting me know where they were, and at what time they expected to arrive in Newcastle. We met up with an agent of the lettings agency to gain access to our rental home, check the utilities and inventory. It’s a strange experience moving into a property that you’ve never seen firsthand, but only through online descriptions and photos. However, it turned out just fine. We have a compact, three bedroom house, very close to excellent transport links, shopping, medical services and the like. So we knew we could settle very easily there.

The removals crew turned up just before 1 pm, and immediately set to work. And just before 4 pm they were on their way south once again.


Thus ended our house sale and move saga. So what were the good, the bad, and the ugly?

The good
On reflection, I think our estate agent served us well, with a good discount on their fee, and continual follow-up on what was happening down the chain. The promotional materials they produced were of a high standard. Also the service we received from Robinsons Relocation for the actual move north was excellent.

The bad
What frustrated us most was the lack of transparency in the legal aspects of the sale. Once we had instructed solicitors to handle the sale, it was like sucking blood from a stone to find out what was happening throughout the chain. No-one was proactive, keeping us updated. It was always us having to make enquiries. Now I am the last person to deny anyone their annual vacation, but I was extremely annoyed on two occasions to find that two solicitors in the chain had taken off for a week or more at critical times in the sales negotiations without letting their clients know. In any case the whole sales process seems arcane and convoluted, and the lack of information and transparency only made the whole thing more mysterious and stressful.

The ugly
Selling a house is stressful at the best of times, as I’ve already mentioned. Selling one during a pandemic just adds to the stress, and anxiety. And the last month, as deadlines came and went without apparent progress, and the pressure to find a rental property in Newcastle increased, my stress levels increased seemingly exponentially. There were a couple of occasions when I came close to a breakdown, and I’m a pretty level-headed sort of chap. Just the uncertainty, and not knowing whether we’d have a roof over our heads once we’d sold No. 4, were awful. I don’t think I slept more than three hours a night for over a month, and I’ve lost quite a bit of weight (which, on reflection, can’t be a bad thing!).

It was a relief when that call came through that contracts had been exchanged on 25 September, opening the door to so many other aspects of our move such as finalising the rental contract, confirm removals arrangements, and the like.

But we did it. We have now been in Newcastle for just over two weeks. We are settled, and relaxing a bit more. And we have already found our next home. But that’s for another blog post in due course.


 

What is it about September?

. . . often a mellow month, the transition from the hot, summer months to the cooler days of autumn.

When we worked overseas during the 1970s we would return to the UK each September on home-leave. And mostly enjoyed excellent weather.

I think September Song, that classic from 1938 and performed here by Jeff Lynne on his 1990 album Armchair Theatre, sums up the month just right.

September is also a Jackson birthday month. My father, Fred Jackson, was born on 15 September 1908. My eldest brother Martin and youngest grandson Felix share a birthday, 1 September, but 74 years apart, being 81 and seven respectively this year. And second grandson Elvis celebrates his birthday on 24 September. He will be nine.

Felix and Elvis in May 2020


It’s also a month when significant things happened during my career.

Fifty years ago, in September 1970, I enrolled at the University of Birmingham for the one year MSc degree course in Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources run by the Department of Botany in the School of Biological Sciences. I had been in the university just once before, in the early summer of 1967, when I sat my Biology Advanced Level practical exam in the School’s first year laboratory, never anticipating I would be there again to study three years later.

A year later, in September 1971 I had expected to be on my way to Peru in South America, to join the International Potato Center (CIP) on a one-year contract to help manage the center’s potato germplasm collection. That didn’t happen then, but took until January 1973 before I departed these shores.

In September 1980, while winding down my five year assignment in Costa Rica, I heard about a lectureship that had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham. I sent in my application and successfully interviewed for the position in January 1981, joining the faculty in April.

Moving on a decade, it was during September 1990 that I first heard about a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines as Head of the newly-created Genetic Resources Center. I was interviewed in January 1991 and joined the institute in July that year remaining there for almost 19 years before retiring in April 2010.


It’s now 2020. So what does September hold in store? Hopefully, it will be the month our house sale is completed and we move north to Newcastle upon Tyne.

Late summer blues . . . and yellows, oranges, reds – even some vivid greens

I think late summer-early autumn is my favorite time of the year. We’ve enjoyed the dog days of high summer. The heat is slipping away, an unusual feature of any normal British summer; recently we experienced some of the highest temperatures I can remember.

Yet yesterday (21 August) it already felt more like autumn, as Storm Ellen, an area of deep low pressure, was battering Ireland and the western side of the UK with wind gusts in some places in excess of 50 mph, and even reaching more than 40 mph here in northeast Worcestershire.

Even so, the sun tried to shine, a welcome break from the miserable weather earlier in the week when it was wet and overcast all day. Made worse by the rain finding a crack in the flat roof above our kitchen, and seeping through to splash all over a work surface below. Bummer! But hopefully now resolved with the judicious application of a product I’d not come across before: Fiba-Pol.

But enough of my waxing unlyrical about the weather, which everyone knows is favorite British pastime.


I love this transition from summer to autumn. A time when the colors in the garden are often at their strongest and most vibrant. Here are just a few of the lovely plants in Steph’s garden right now. I call it ‘Steph’s garden’ because it’s her creation, and she does all the hard work. I don’t get involved, and she prefers it that way. My only contribution is to keep the lawns to the front and rear of our home under control.


And nature’s bounty is on full display on many trees and bushes as fruits begin to form. 2020 looks like an exceptional mast year.

While trees have lost that bright green vibrancy of spring (I’ve already even seen leaves changing color on some trees close to home, but I think that’s more to do with the dry weather we have experienced in recent weeks), they are regaining it through the abundance of fruits that are forming right now, such as the acorns on oak trees everywhere. Or the prickly fruits on the sweet and horse chestnuts.

The bright red berries of the rowan trees in the vicinity hold great promise for the many birds that feast upon them, building up their reserves for the winter ahead, or maybe in preparation for a long migration south. And if I made wines, there seems to be an abundance of elderberries this year as well.

Before long, all these fruitful delights will have been consumed by the local wildlife, or rallen from the boughs. Already I’ve seen many acorns crushed underfoot. From little acorns mighty oak trees grow; but not these. Soon the trees will be bare, the abundance of color in the gardens faded away, and autumn and winter will creep inexorably along.

However, there is always the promise of next spring, and that is always something to look forward to.


 

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.


 

Trusting during Covid-19

While life does seem to be returning to some sort of stability—I dislike the term ‘new normal’—many aspects of our lives that we have formerly taken for granted may not return for many months yet, if ever?

As experts have warned, this particular coronavirus will be with us for many years, decades even, as it becomes a firmly established endemic. Already new societal behaviours are taking hold, such as regular hand washing, appropriate social distancing, and the wearing of face masks, although as someone in the ‘at risk’ demographic, I wish that more individuals would take these simple but effective measures more seriously. Today it is mandatory to wear a face mask when entering shops, banks, and other establishments, unless you have a ‘dispensation’ or are under 11 years old.

Just this morning I walked into town (about ¾ of a mile), through the town center (another ¾), and then home (the same again). Until arriving at the town center, I did not pass a single person, and so did not wear my mask. But at that point, I donned my mask and wore it continuously as I navigated the High Street and beyond. Once I was in the ‘safety zone’ beyond the town center, I took my mask off, and didn’t pass another soul before arriving home. This is my normal pattern of mask use. I was surprised, miffed even, at how few people were wearing a mask continuously in the town center, maybe fewer than 10%. Some were carrying masks, and putting them on and taking them off just to enter shops. It seemed to me that at least 50% of the people I passed had no indication of a mask whatsoever. Unbelievable!

Anyway, enough of my ‘old fart’ grumbling. Let’s look at some recent positives.


Once lockdown came into effect in March, I continued my daily exercise every day, walking for at least 45 minutes, and between 2 and 2½ miles. I reckon I’ve walked around 300 miles since then. My walk rate has fallen off in recent weeks, however. The July weather has been rather variable, cool, and wet; and in preparation for our anticipated house move, Steph and I have spent a considerable amount of time sorting through almost 50 years of accumulated married life ‘stuff’. Fortunately, we’ve been able to upcycle an impressive number of items (which I wrote about in this post), and sending only those items to landfill or recycling (pieces of wood, cardboard, or scrap metal) that no-one was likely to have a use for.


As regular followers of my blog will know, we are enthusiastic members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. During the first three months of the pandemic, both closed their doors to all visitors. However, around the beginning of June, a number of National Trust properties were re-opened to visitors, but only their gardens and parklands. In recent days, several have also opened the houses to a strictly regulated number of admissions. I’m not sure what arrangements English Heritage has put in place.

To visit any of the NT properties that are now open, it is necessary to book tickets online for a timed entry slot. Initially, demand for tickets was high and it took some patience (not one of my virtues) to log into the ticket website. Tickets are released each Friday for the following week. After several attempts, we finally secured tickets for Hanbury Hall on 15 June, being just a hop and a skip (about 7 miles) from our home in Worcestershire. We have visited Hanbury Hall more than any other NT property, often dropping by whenever the fancy took us for a stroll around its splendid parterre (one of the finest in the whole NT portfolio, in my opinion), or a leisurely walk around the park. We missed that during lockdown.

The southwest facade of Hanbury Hall and the parterre in mid-June 2020.

I wrote about our recent June visit here. It was such a joy to be able to explore this delightful landscape once again. Here is a link to a more extensive album of photos from that visit.

Nine days later, we revisited Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire, just south of Bridgnorth. Dudmaston has been in the same family for more than 800 years.

This was our third visit to Dudmaston, having made our first in August 2013. On this latest visit, it was a beautiful, and rather hot day. Since I wear my hair very short, and my hairline has been receding for many years, my NT-purchased straw hat came into its own! We enjoyed a 2½ mile walk around the lake and gardens. Opposite the house, there are some splendid views across the lake towards the house.

Here is the link to more photos that I took on that day.

Then, on 10 July, we headed to the Brockhampton Estate near Bromyard in Herefordshire, just under 30 miles southwest from home. This was our third (maybe fourth?) visit to Brockhampton, having first been there in September 2012. We had actually planned to visit Brockhampton on the 9th, but as the weather deteriorated I was able to cancel our tickets, and rebook for the next day, which turned out fine.

The estate encompasses a working farm, at the heart of which is a medieval manor house surrounded by a moat. This was, of course, closed to all visitors. When we visited for a second time a couple of years back or so, more rooms in the manor house had been opened since our first visit.

After enjoying a picnic lunch, and walking around the moat, we headed back to the main car park (about 1½ miles from the manor house) and began a 3 mile walk through the ancient woods that cover a significant portion of the estate.

Then, just a couple of days ago, we secured tickets to Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, the home of the Lucy family since the 13th century, although the present house dates from the 16th century.

We had a timed slot for 10:30-11:00, and we arrived just after 10:45, the 28 mile trip southeast from home taking just over 30 minutes down the M40 motorway.

We immediately set off on our walk, taking in Hill Park and Front Park first, and then crossing over into West Park, for a total of about four miles. Place’s Meadow where we had walked on an earlier visit was closed to visitors on this occasion.

Charlecote is home to ancient herds of Jacob’s sheep and fallow deer. There were signs warning visitors to keep to paths, and not approach the deer. After lockdown, the deer were taking time to become accustomed to humans again. In Hill Park we had a great view of a small herd of fallow deer bucks, and hinds in West Park.

This was the first time we had explored West Park, eventually reaching what must have once been the ‘West Gate’, and then returning to the house (which stands on the banks of the River Avon—yes, Shakespeare’s Avon) along one of the most magnificent lime tree walks I’ve seen. Very impressive! It must be nearly half a mile long.

Back at the car, we enjoyed a leisurely picnic lunch, while watching the light aircraft coming into land at Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield just outside Charlecote Park (map). This is where I had a flying lesson in about 2006.

Here’s the link to a photo album of last Wednesday’s visit to Charlecote.


Hopefully our house sale will go through quite soon. We know the prospective purchasers want to be here before 1 September because their daughter is already enrolled in one of the local schools. But everyone in the chain is waiting for mortgages to be confirmed and contracts exchanged. Once that happens, it will be all hands to the pump and I expect we won’t have too many more opportunities for NT visits locally. Those will have to wait until we move north. So many more properties to explore.


 

 

 

 

Moving on . . .

Steph and I moved to Bromsgrove, a small market town in northeast Worcestershire in the English Midlands, in July 1981. We had just returned to the UK after a little over eight years working with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica in Central America.

In January that year I flew back to the UK to interview for a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Birmingham, and was successful. Since I was scheduled to begin there on 1 April, we (and three year old Hannah) returned from Peru in mid-March and moved in with Steph’s parents near Southend-on-Sea in Essex. I then moved up to Birmingham, spending Sunday evening to Friday there each week, and returning to Essex for the weekend.

And while starting my teaching career at the university, I immediately began the search for somewhere to live.

Before arriving back in the UK we had already asked different estate agents (realtors) for details of properties close to Birmingham to be sent to my in-laws, and we had several hundred to peruse (and mostly eliminate as being unsuitable or not in the right area). Anyway, to cut a long story short, the house we purchased was, in fact, the very first house that I went to view. It was the Wednesday of my first week at the university. There were no classes, since Wednesday afternoons were turned over to varsity sports. So I headed out to Bromsgrove as being the easiest place to visit, just 13 miles due south of the university on the major arterial A38 road. I looked at three properties that afternoon, but knew immediately that the house we eventually bought was the right one for us.

I phoned Steph that evening, and asked her to come up to Birmingham to view the house. We put in an offer, and after successfully negotiating a mortgage (at 16¾% interest!), moved in during the first week of July. Thirty nine years ago!

And now we are on the move again. Last year, we finally decided it was time to be closer to family since we no longer have any ties in Bromsgrove. Elder daughter Hannah and her family live in Minnesota in the US Midwest. So the USA was out of the question (for several reasons). Our younger daughter Philippa and her family live in Newcastle upon Tyne, some 250 miles northeast from our current home. We bit the bullet last autumn, and even by November had begun to look into the housing market in the Newcastle area.

We put our house on the market in mid-January, and before lockdown in mid-March we’d had about ten or so viewings. But nothing promising. And with the Covid-19 lockdown, all real estate transactions were put on hold. Just before the official lockdown, Steph and I had already decided to self-isolate, being in our early 70s, and not accept any more viewings. However, we did go ahead with one final viewing as we had agreed to it a week earlier.

Then everything went quiet, until a month ago when estate agents were permitted to begin operating again. The folks who had viewed our house just before lockdown asked to return for a second viewing. Although we hadn’t wanted to go ahead with any ‘speculative’ viewings, we thought a second viewing was one we would entertain.

We ‘escaped’ from the house while the prospective buyers looked around, who made some measurements with the builder they had brought along. The outcome? They put in an offer the following morning and, after a counter offer from us and a little negotiation, we accepted their revised offer. So No. 4 is Sold (Subject to Contract). The sale is in the hands of our solicitors, and hopefully we will have exchanged contracts with the buyers before too long and agreed on a completion date.

Hopefully we’ll be on our way to Newcastle before the end of August, and there will be no glitches.

We have already settled on a local company to undertake the removal: quite expensive but actually not as expensive as I feared it might be. Steph and I decided we would do much of the packing ourselves, since this gives a good opportunity of carefully going through all our possessions that we have accumulated over almost 47 years of married life. And decide what has a real sentimental value and we want to take with us, and what not to take.

A couple of days ago, the removals folks delivered a whole stack of collapsed cardboard boxes. I’ve been busy putting these together, and packing books away.

We’ve been quite ruthless, and still have nine or ten boxes of books. I hate disposing of books. Normally we would donate spare books to one of several charity shops. However, considering the Covid-19 crisis and that these shops are only just opening, and have been overwhelmed with donated items as everyone it seems has taken advantage of the lockdown to have a clearout, we’ve reluctantly sent several boxes of books to landfill.

Until recently there was space in my double garage for my car and many other items that were stacked to one side. But we have had a massive clearout here. Some old items have gone to landfill, or recycled in one way or another.

We have been able to gift a whole range of items: loft boarding, paintings, some small items of furniture, and others through a global network known as The Freecycle Network, that originated in Arizona in 2003. We belong to the Bromsgrove group.

It’s simple. You post an OFFER, or request for a WANTED item, and wait for responses to land in your email box. I have been astonished just how quickly some items have been snapped up, sometimes within minutes of posting an offer. It has been gratifying to see items that we no longer need being placed in homes where someone can appreciate them, rather than going to landfill. We still have a three seater leather sofa to get rid of, and a matching armchair. That’s going to be a challenge. But who knows? If someone decides to take them, they’ll need a large truck. Upcycling is the thing!

We don’t have anywhere yet to live in Newcastle. Had there been no pandemic we would have been able to travel to Newcastle and continue our search and viewings for a new home. As it is, we decided weeks ago that we would find a rental property and use that as a base to search for our next home in a more leisurely fashion.

Wish us luck! Newcastle here we come. We look forward to exploring Northumberland, its hills, moors, and superb beaches. Another exciting chapter in our lives is about to open.


 

I’m feeling conflicted . . .

Many countries recognise achievement or service among their citizens through a system of honours or awards. One exception I discovered is the Republic of Ireland that has no formal honours system whatsoever.

In the USA, for example, the highest civilian honours are the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In France, it’s the Légion d’honneur.

The UK has a long history of handing out honours and awards. Currently there are six orders of chivalry and four orders of merit. The oldest, The Most Noble Order of the Garter dates back to 1348, and is entirely at the discretion of the sovereign, as are The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (for Scotland), and the Royal Victorian Order.

For centuries, honours and awards were given almost exclusively to government officials and members of the armed forces. There was little recognition of members of the public.

That changed in 1917, when King George V wished to create an Order to honour many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combatant roles during the First World War.

Insignia of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire

The outcome was the founding of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which recognises contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service.

Twice a year, at New Year and on the occasion of The Queen’s Official Birthday in early June, a list is published in the London Gazette (the UK’s official journal of record) with the names of those nominated for one of the ranks of this Order (or other honours).

In the 2012 New Year’s Honours I was surprised and honoured to be nominated as an Officer (OBE) of the Order for services to international food science. I spent much of my career in international agricultural research, helping to bring the best of science to address the worldwide problem of food insecurity, especially among the poorest nations.

I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace on the 29th February, receiving my award from HRH The Prince of Wales, who was standing in for HM The Queen as is often the case nowadays as she takes on fewer commitments.

So why am I feeling conflicted? Being an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (whose motto is For God and the Empire) does not sit comfortably right now. I’m surprised that in the wake of the recent brutal killings in the USA of African Americans and the surge of Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, and calls for the removal of symbols of Britain’s imperial and colonial past (many linked to slavery), that there have not been any—that I have seen—to scrap the Order of the British Empire.

It wouldn’t be the first time. During Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister in 2004 there were calls for the UK honours system to be reformed, and some honours scrapped. Titles in the honours system were “redolent of past preoccupations with rank and class, just as the ‘Empire’ is redolent of an imperial history,” said the [parliamentary] Public Administration Committee, chaired by the Labour MP Tony Wright. 

Colonial titles, such as the Order of the British Empire, should be consigned to history. “This is anachronistic and insensitive, an inappropriate symbol for today’s Britain,” the committee said.

There was even a suggestion that the Order should be renamed as the Order of British Excellence, an idea revived by Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy while campaigning to become Leader of the Labour Party earlier this year (before the latest protests). She proposed overhauling the honours system by removing reference to the British Empire in medals awarded to high-achieving individuals. 

She cited British poet Benjamin Zephaniah who rejected an OBE in 2003. He wrote: “It reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of the thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” Zephaniah is not the first person to reject recognition on this basis.

There are, of course, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) recipients of the Order, but not as many as White recipients, because there are fewer BAME nominations apparently. Some are high profile individuals like athletes Jessica Ennis-Hill DBE and Kelly Holmes DBE, or slavery historian David Olusoga OBE, and others. Here are recent statistics up to 2019.

We cannot erase history. What happened, happened. Good or bad. Rather we must learn from the past, placing those events and individuals in context. And explain to current and future generations what that history means. Getting rid of statues, such as happened recently to the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, as well as repeated calls for Cecil Rhodes’ statue outside Oriel College in Oxford to be taken down, does remove however the daily reminders that so many find offensive. These statues are best placed now in museums where the roles of the individuals they depict can be explained and contextualised.

So this brings me back to the Order of the British Empire. Should its name be changed? I don’t believe that is the appropriate thing to do. Maybe create a new Order in its stead.

I hope I do not sound hypocritical. When I was nominated for and accepted the OBE, I never even made a connection with the Order’s imperial foundation. I appreciate that some will perhaps find this response unacceptable. Thoughts of empire never crossed my mind. I’m sure that for most recipients of one of the Order’s five ranks or the UK population at large, there is no longer (and hasn’t been for at least a couple of generations or more) any concept of empire. It was what it was when the Order was created in 1917. I nevertheless acknowledge that ‘imperial links’ do not sit well today.

 


 

Taking a last look at Hanbury Hall

As regular readers of my blog will know, my wife Steph and I are enthusiastic members of the National Trust (and English Heritage). At every opportunity, weather and other commitments permitting, we take off for an outing to one property or another. We are fortunate that there are so many within 50 miles of our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (just south of the UK’s second city, Birmingham). In recent years we have also taken short breaks to explore properties much further afield in Northern Ireland (in 2017), Cornwall (in 2018), and East Sussex and Kent and Lincolnshire (in 2019).

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown put paid to these lovely outings. Until yesterday! Our last outing before lockdown was in the middle of January when, on a very misty, moisty morning, we had an excellent walk around our ‘local’ property, Hanbury Hall, an elegant ‘William and Mary’ house in the Worcestershire countryside, just over six miles from home.

We have visited more than twenty times since we joined the National Trust in 2011. In fact, Hanbury Hall was the first property we visited after we became members.

We just enjoy walking around the park and the magnificent parterre that is, in my opinion, one of the best among all the Trust’s properties. We’ve been inside the hall itself only three times, and two of those occasions were to see the Christmas decorations.

Here are some images of the parterre taken over the years and in different seasons. While not as colorful as some of the parterres we’ve seen, like those at Waddesdon Manor, Charlecote Park, or Witley Court (an English Heritage property), I really do appreciate the elegant simplicity of the Hanbury version, with beautiful clipped box hedges and cones, holly shrubs, and sparse planting.

During lockdown, I have been able to get out locally almost every day for a 2-3 mile walk. But the same routes have become rather stale after all these weeks. So, after three months of lockdown, it was great to be able to get timed entry tickets to Hanbury Hall yesterday. This is only the second week that Hanbury (and many other National Trust properties) have re-opened, but not fully. Visitors are being limited currently to allow for sufficient social distancing. On arrival we were made welcome in a safe manner.

What a joy! We’ve been ‘starved’ of the opportunity of just deciding, on a whim, to put on our walking shoes and head off for a stroll of just under three miles around Hanbury’s park and garden.

Here is a link to the album of photos from yesterday’s visit.

I mentioned that Hanbury will no longer be our local National Trust property. That’s because we have sold our house (subject to contract) and expect to move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England by the beginning of September. Well, that’s the plan and we hope there are no glitches and hitches along the house selling pathway.

We already know several of the National Trust and English Heritage sites across the north east, and a little further south. We look forward to exploring those once again, and seeking out many that are still on our bucket list. Exciting times!

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.


 

Minnesota isn’t the laughing stock, Mr President. You are! Zipp it!

Mr President, if you can’t open your mouth without inflaming an already tense situation—dangerous even—then please don’t say anything at all.

And if you can’t—or won’t—show leadership of your great nation, then please vacate the Oval Office as soon as possible*. I don’t think you have any understanding what true ‘leadership’ means. Other presidents have had it spades. Particularly your immediate predecessor.

Since the day of your inauguration, you have demonstrated on a daily basis just how unfit you are for public office. You are not exactly full of the milk of human kindness, but are morally bankrupt, devoid of empathy, narcissistic and, frankly, stupid. Despite your many protestations to the contrary, I don’t see any evidence of your stable genius. You have failed!

Heaven knows we have a dearth of leadership on this side of the Atlantic. Boris Johnson is, in my opinion, the worst Prime Minister in living memory (well, my memory at least and I’m 71). But we should be thankful for small mercies. He’s not Donald Trump.

By Andy Marlette, The Pensacola News Journal

While the emergence of Covid-19 per se cannot be laid at Trump’s door, his government’s pathetic response to the pandemic has brought about a catastrophe beyond all measure. More than 100,000 deaths from the virus, and while not the highest per capita toll (unfortunately I believe that ‘accolade’ belongs to the UK) it is a terrible indictment of what the USA has become under the Trump presidency.

As for the economic fallout, with a calculated 40 million job losses that disproportionately affect those already worse off in US society, Trump and the Republicans do not seem to care. They have, it seems, been more concerned about bailing out big business than providing real support to the needy. And now US society has to contend with demonstrations (some violent) that have sprung up across the whole nation.

By Clay Bennett, The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Over the past week, Steph and I have watched with horror as the United States has fractured once again along racial lines following the killing in broad daylight of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The nation-wide civil disturbances that this outrage has sparked come in the midst of a health crisis unprecedented for a generation or more. In terms of health care, race relations, and the economy, the USA is in turmoil.

There is surely a clear connection between the killing of George Floyd last week and Trump, early in his presidency, encouraging law enforcement officers to be more ‘vigorous’ with suspects. No wonder many saw this ‘signal’ from the man in the Oval Office as a licence to continue to threaten, subdue, and brutalise an already downtrodden sector of society.

By Chris Britt, creators.com

Now he wants Governors and mayors to get even tougher.

I could go on. Others have written more cogently than I ever could, so I am not going to repeat their observations on Trump’s presidency and all of its many failings perhaps numbering more than the lies he tells on a daily basis.

Some years back I wrote a piece about Watergate, and how cartoonists then very quickly got Richard Nixon’s measure. Cartoonists today have taken political commentary to another level when it comes to Trump. And they are spot on. Just take a look at the Facebook page Editorial & Political Cartoons (unless Mark Zuckerberg has temporarily taken it down for too obvious anti-Trump bias, as happens from time to time).

By David Rowe, Australia


Steph and I take a special interest in Minnesota, which we have come to know and love. So it has been distressing to see another side to the state through that appalling killing at the knee of a ‘rogue’ Minneapolis police officer (but how rogue?), and the protests that flared up in its wake.

Since retirement ten years ago, we have travelled to the USA each year. Had this had been a ‘normal’ year, we would probably be in Minnesota right now. Why? Our elder daughter Hannah lives with her family in St Paul, MN (the other half of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul). Having resided there since attending university from 1998, Hannah became a US citizen last year. We’d probably be half way through one of our epic road trips that we have enjoyed across so many states over the past decade.

We hope that the civil disturbances die down very soon, and life returns to normal in most respects. But let the summer of 2020 be remembered as the year when finally Black Lives Matter becomes more than a slogan. Let’s hope for real change, and the departure of Donald Trump come the general election next November.


*Joe Biden spoke these words at City Hall in Philadelphia yesterday after I posted this story. He focuses on the lack of leadership.

 

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!


 

How much of a game-changer will Covid-19 be?

Let me take you back more than a decade, to the mid-2000s if memory serves me correctly. The world was facing a threat from the H5N1 strain of avian flu. Although the disease did not materialize as a global pandemic, not having the high level of human-to-human transmission that was initially feared, avian flu has not gone away. Its appearance, however, spurred many governments and organizations to plan for a world under lockdown. Did we learn any lessons? It seems not.

I was working in the Philippines at the time, as Director for Program Planning and Communications at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila. One of my briefs was risk management, and so leading the institute’s response to the H5N1 threat fell to me. I formed a task force that proposed a series of measures to protect staff and their families, and developed health and safety guidelines (with input from local health officials in Los Baños) for self isolation or quarantine, or if access to food and services became limited. These included for example recommendations as simple as keeping an appropriate amount of cash in the home should ATMs cease to function.

The institute also acquired a significant stock of the antiviral medication oseltamivir (sold as Tamiflu), and offered seasonal flu vaccinations to all staff and their closest family members (at a cost in excess of US$200,000). Should anyone vaccinated show flu symptoms then they might well be a candidate for avian flu. Anyway we had contingency plans for a significant period of disruption to everyday life.

How naïve we were!

I have been surprised—shocked even—how quickly life has changed for everyone under the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutdown of economic activity and everyday life has been far more rapid and extensive than anything IRRI’s avian flu task force envisaged.

The question surely on everyone’s lips is when will society return to normal. And perhaps more importantly, what will that ‘new normal’ (a term I dislike) look like?

There’s been much in the press and social media about not wanting to return to how things were. This pandemic has given society an opportunity—if we choose to take it—to reassess our values, and decide which aspects should return to pre-Covid levels, or even at all. And how we should work, for example, with working from home probably here to stay for some businesses (as Twitter has recently announced).

Economic activity has been hit so hard in such a short time that pundits are forecasting an economic downturn far more severe than the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933. The Bank of England has even warned that this could be the worst economic decline for 300 years. That’s some decline!


One of the industries hardest hit is aviation. I don’t think we have ever seen images like this one.

When was the last time you looked up into the sky and saw a contrail? Over the past couple of days I’ve seen more, but in general, they are almost a novelty right now. Nevertheless, airlines are clearly itching to take to the skies once again. But will they and how many?

I think it’s pretty certain that some airlines will not return to their pre-Covid-19 configuration, and some may not return at all or may be absorbed through mergers or acquisitions into airlines that better weather the Covid-19 storm. Some airlines were already on the ropes before the pandemic.

Will the public have the same pre-Covid-19 appetite for air travel, since the virus is not going away soon, and given the social distancing and on-arrival quarantine measures that are being contemplated? This pandemic is already catalyzing a rethink about our love affair with aviation and seeing this as an opportunity to redress the balance in terms of global warming. Only time will tell if we change our aviation habits.


Last night, thinking about how Covid-19 was affecting everybody’s lives, I began wondering when Steph and I might be able to travel again to the USA to visit our elder daughter Hannah and her family (husband Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë) in Minnesota. We stepped off our last flight in October 2019, from Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) to Birmingham, UK (BHX) via Amsterdam (AMS) on Delta Airlines and KLM.

When the time finally comes to travel again, which airline might fly us to Minnesota? Airlines (and their lovely insignia, branding – see below) that do not survive the Covid-19 lockdown will be consigned to the annals of aviation history. As so many have, I realised, over the 54 years since I took my first flight in the summer of 1966 (from Glasgow to Benbecula, a small island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland). How many unnecessary air miles have I travelled over these past five and half decades? Too many to count, I guess.

Covid-19 will become the final nail in the coffin for some airlines. Several are already looking to reconfigure their fleets, decommissioning large and inefficient aircraft, in the hope that will keep them solvent and able to return to full operations when permitted. Even before the lockdown most airlines had already disposed of their Boeing 747 aircraft. It had a great run nevertheless since it first took to the air on 9 February 1969, and entering into service with its launch airline, Pan Am, on 22 January 1970 from New York to London. I wonder how many of Emirates’ huge fleet of superjumbo A380 aircraft will fare in a post-Covid world?

Pan Am was an airline I knew well. When I was working in Central America during the second half of the 1970s I used to fly the airline frequently (on its Boeing 707 aircraft) through its hub in Guatemala City. Sadly, Pan Am is no more, collapsing in December 1991. There again, quite a number of the airlines I have travelled with are also no more. These airline insignia images were sourced through Wikipedia.

Here’s a list, with an asterisk indicating which are no longer operating (or at least no longer operating under that particular brand), and the date on which they ceased operations.

North America
Aeroméxico
American
Braniff International Airways* 1982
Canadian Pacific Air Lines* 1987
Delta Air Lines
Eastern Air Lines* 1991
Mexicana de Aviación* 2010
National Airlines* 1980
Northwest Airlines* 2010
Pan American* 1991
Southwest Airlines
Trans World Airlines (TWA)* 2001
United Airlines

Central and South America
AeroPerú* 1999
Air Jamaica* 2015
Avianca
Aviateca* 1989
British West Indies Airways* 2006
Copa Airlines
Cruzeiro* 1993
Faucett Perú* 1997
LACSA* 2013
LAN Airlines* 2012
LIAT
SAHSA* 1994
TACA* 2013
Varig* 2006

Africa and Middle East
Air Ivoire* 2011
Air Madagascar
Emirates
Ethiopian Airways
Kenya Airways
LAM Mozambique Airlines
South African Airways
Turkish Airlines

Asia and Oceania
Air China
Cathay Pacific
China Eastern Airlines
China Southern Airlines
Dragonair 2006
Garuda Indonesia
Korean Air
Lao Airlines
Malaysia Airlines
Philippine Airlines
Qantas
Silk Airlines
Singapore Airlines
Thai Airways
Vietnam Airlines

Europe
Air France
Alitalia
Austrian Airlines
BOAC* 1974
British Airways
British Caledonian* 1988
British European Airways* 1974
Brussels Airlines
easyJet
Flybe* 2020
Iberia
KLM
Laker Airways* 1982
LOT Polish Airlines
Lufthansa
Paramount Airways* 1989
Sabena* 2001
Swissair* 2002
TAP Air Portugal

These are the airlines I remember.

They have fared less well in North and Central America, where mergers have brought different airlines together. A good example is the dominant role today in Central America of Avianca (from Colombia) and its Central American subsidiaries, the successors to the national airlines of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

I’m sure the effects of Covid-19 will see further consolidation in the North American market. But until intercontinental travel is fully restored, airlines like Emirates that have built their business model on hub distribution to multiple destinations using large aircraft (like the A380 and the Boeing 777) are likely to come out of lockdown (recession even) more slowly than smaller and perhaps more nimble airlines that can focus on their domestic markets.


 

Living the life in Costa Rica . . . 1970s style

For almost five years, from April 1976 until the end of November 1980, Steph and I had the great good fortune to live in Costa Rica in Central America (it’s that small country with Nicaragua to the north and Panamá to the south). I was working for the Peru-based International Potato Center (CIP) in its regional program for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. How the years have flown by since then.

We lived in Turrialba, a small town around 70 km east of Costa Rica’s capital, San José, on the campus of The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (known by its Spanish acronym as CATIE). Although many features of CATIE’s 900 ha campus have changed since our time there, this recent official video simply highlights its beauty. Surrounded by lush tropical forest, with the Reventazón River snaking around the campus on the east side, it is a haven for the most incredible wildlife (particularly birds), and made it a special place to raise our elder daughter Hannah who was born there in April 1978.

We occupied a single storey, two bedroom residence on the south side of the campus, next door to the International School. Since our time, the school has been expanded, and our house is now part of the school.

Water apples in a San Jose market

Our garden was full of fruit trees, some of which (like lemons and papayas) we planted ourselves. Just beside the house entrance there was a mature and very tall water apple tree (manzana de agua, Syzygium malaccense, Myrtaceae) that produced abundant fruit each year. Loved by the locals, I never really did acquire a taste for them. If taste is the right word. I just found them bland and watery.

Common animal visitors to our garden included white-nosed coatimundis (known locally as pizotes), skunks, the marsupial opossums (which often made themselves noisily at home in the roof of our house), and armadillos. Snakes were also quite common, and fierce; Costa Rica is home to many different snake species. In fact one of the world’s most venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance (terciopelo in Spanish), was quite common on the CATIE campus. Poisonous coral snakes sometimes found their way inside the house and we had to call someone in to rescue them. Not something I was ever up for!

The bird life in Costa Rica is extraordinary. Something to write home about! One year, I took part in the annual Christmas Bird Count (number of different species, and their abundance) organized by the National Audubon Society. We set off in pairs, counting all the birds we observed over a six hour period, in our assigned area of the Turrialba valley. Altogether the spotters observed more than 100 species.

And around our house, on the edges of the Reventazón ravine, and behind my office we saw so many different species. The sunbirds and hummingbirds were always amazing. As were the motmots with their swinging pendulum-like tails, and several migrant species that stopped off in Turrialba on their travels between North and South America. Like the summer tanager (Piranga rubra) below, one of the brightest birds that showed up each year in the garden.

However, two of the most flamboyant—and vocal—birds, seen in abundance high up the trees around the campus were the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) and Montezuma’s oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) [1].

My work took me away frequently from Turrialba, to meetings every couple of weeks or so at the University of Costa Rica or the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock in San José, to the potato-growing areas on the slopes of the Irazú Volcano, or outside the country to work with colleagues in government potato programs in the region.

Potatoes at Llano Grande, Cartago Province, on the slopes of the Irazu Volcano.

In the 1970s (until just a year or so before we left) the road between Turrialba and Cartago (about half the way to San José) was unpaved, and rather tricky to navigate. Steph and I didn’t travel around the country much, exploring the Caribbean coast for instance near the port city of Limón just once.


On our first visit to Costa Rica in April 1975 (on our way back to the UK from Lima) we drove to the summit of the Irazú Volcano (at over 3400 m or 11,200 ft), looking down into the deep turquoise lake that fills the crater. Since potatoes are grown on the slopes very close to the summit, I would often take visitors to the summit while in the field.

On another occasion, a CATIE entomologist colleague and his wife, Andrew and Heather King, and I ascended to the summit of the Turrialba Volcano.

The Turrialba Volcano from CATIE’s experimental field plots.

It was quiet in those days, just some steaming vents around the large crater into which you could descend.

Inside the Turrialba crater.

Occasionally we felt an earth tremor that was probably associated with rumblings inside the volcano. But Turrialba started to show signs of activity in 2001, and became explosively active after 2014 (video), although it’s quiet again now.


For the first three years, we traveled around in our white VW Brasilia, even taking it south to Boquete, a small town in the heart of the potato-growing region of north Panamá, just south of the border with Costa Rica. The Inter-American Highway heading south crosses the Talamanca Range of mountains. Its highest point, Cerro de la Muerte (Summit of Death) is notorious for catching out careless drivers who pay the ultimate price. The road is winding, and often covered in cloud. [2]


We enjoyed short breaks on the northwest coast in the province of Guanacaste at Playa Tamarindo, more than 350 km from Turrialba, and a journey of more than eight hours. There was a gorgeous stretch of beach, and on both occasions (in March 1977 and 1979) we were the only residents at our chosen hotel. During our second time there, Hannah was a toddler, her first time at the beach. It’s much more developed now, and I’m sure the highway between Liberia (where there’s now an international airport to accommodate all the ‘snowbirds’ from the USA) and Tamarindo beach (almost 80 km) is now paved. Back in the day, it was a haven of tranquillity.

Apart from one evening that is, in March 1979. We’d enjoyed dinner, and getting Hannah ready for bed. We had chosen a suite with two rooms, so Hannah could sleep alone. I was reading her a story, when my foot accidentally tipped over an open bottle of Coca Cola. It was ice cold. I don’t know whether it was the temperature, or how the bottle made contact with the tile floor. The bottle simply exploded, and we found ourselves covered not only in frothing Coca Cola but shattered glass fragments. Everywhere! Hannah’s bed was full of glass. And soaking wet. There was no alternative but to ask the hotel management to quickly change our suite for another.


Besides the Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes, there’s another, Poás, northwest of San José. In 1978/79 when we visited, it was at least a four hour road trip from Turrialba to the summit, even though it was only 116 km or so. Poás has one of the largest craters (in diameter) in the world. When we arrived there it was smothered in cloud and we didn’t see anything!

Steph and Hannah on the summit of Poas.


Closer to Turrialba is the archaeological site of Guayabo, just 20 km north of CATIE but, in the 1970s, the road was completely unpaved, deep mud in places. I have written about our visit to that national monument here.

Exploring Guayabo.


Perhaps the most spectacular (if that’s the right word)—and saddest—trip was the one we made to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in the northwest of Costa Rica, in April 1980. Spectacular, because of the location and wildlife. Saddest, because we heard from home that my father had passed away from a heart attack the very day (29 April) we went into the Reserve. Hannah had just celebrated her second birthday five days earlier.

We hired horses to take us from our guesthouse into the reserve; it was several kilometers, and too far a two-year old to walk.

Although Hannah did decide, once we were in the forest, to explore on foot or ride on Dad’s back as well.

Why is Monteverde so special?

  • Monteverde houses 2.5% of worldwide biodiversity;
  • 10% of its flora is endemic; and
  • 50% of flora and fauna of Costa Rica is in this paradise.

Monteverde is home to some large mammals like jaguar and tapir. We didn’t see them.

We actually went in search of the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). It’s the national bird of Guatemala and also the name of its currency.

But there’s a larger population of quetzals apparently in Costa Rica. And Monteverde is a quetzal hotspot. And did we find it? You bet we did!

If you are lucky to come across a quetzal, as we did, it’s not hard to identify with its brilliant emerald green plumage, bright red breast, and tail streamers (on the males) as long as 26 in (65 cm). This is the best image I could take. But at least we saw this magnificent bird.

Another bird that is heard more than it’s seen in the dense forest is the three-wattled bellbird. Its call is unmistakable. We did however see it flying among the trees. Its plumage is quite distinctive.

Because of my father’s death, we had to cut short our visit to Monteverde and head back to Turrialba the next day, a journey of more than 200 km, and over six hours in those days.


Among its neighbors Costa Rica was a peaceful haven. While these countries had insurgencies (Guatemala) or civil war (Nicaragua), Costa Rica was not affected until the end of the 1970s, when refugees from the Nicaraguan civil war started to spill south over the border. This put pressure on the civil and social authorities, especially in San José, and there were reports that crime was increasing there. We saw, for the first time, armed police on the streets. Costa Rica suffered a civil war in 1948 that lasted just 44 days. In the aftermath, its armed forces were abolished. Investment in social welfare programs and education became the norm in the country, making Costa Rica an enlightened outlier among its neighbors. When we first arrived in Costa Rica traffic police were ‘armed’ with screwdrivers, to remove the licence plates from any vehicle infringing traffic regulations.

Clinica Santa Rita

Being a small town, Turrialba did not have access to many of the extended commercial and health facilities available in San José. I guess we took time off every fortnight or so to do a big shop there, and fit in any other appointments as necessary. Hannah was born in the Hospital Clínica Santa Rita in San José.

While I had a badly sprained ankle attended to and put in a cast at the hospital in Turrialba, I checked myself into a clinic in San José when I had a tonsillectomy (just a few weeks before Hannah was born).

So, on reflection, these were five good years, in a beautiful country. After all, there can’t be much wrong with a country that dedicates 25% of its land area to 29 national parks. Although, back in the day, it was definitely a slower pace of life. In 1976, the population of San José was around 456,000. Today, it’s closer to 1.4 million. One sign of that slower pace were the typical ox-carts used on farms all over the country. I wonder how many are used today on a regular basis?

I’ve been back to Costa Rica just once since we left, in 1997, when I joined a group of scientists from the University of Costa Rica and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to collect wild rices in the Palo Verde National Park in Guanacaste.

Collecting seeds of Oryza latifolia with Alejandro Zamora.

Will I go back to Costa Rica? Perhaps. It would be great to see my old CIP team with whom I’m still in contact. But since there are so many other places I would like explore (Covid-19 permitting), it may be just a pipe dream. So many good memories.


[1] This YouTube video was actually filmed in Guatemala. However, it’s the same species as in Costa Rica, and I chose this particular video because it shows to perfection the display and call of Montezuma’s oropendola.

[2] Just one species of wild potatoes is found in Costa Rica: Solanum oxycarpum Schiede. We came across this species on the Cerro de la Muerte.

What’s on your mind?

Isn’t it strange how random memories come to the surface when you least expect them. Especially when you wake in the middle of the night, and your mind seems to race away.

I’ve not been sleeping particularly well in recent weeks. I’m not sure if this is due to Covid-19 anxiety or what. Whatever the cause, it’s increasingly annoying to wake up around 1 or 2 am, then lying awake for an hour or so, while your thoughts are whirling round and round. That’s what happened a couple of nights ago.

All of a sudden I found myself thinking about the cinemas in the town where I grew up. Leek, in North Staffordshire. My family had moved there (from Congleton in Cheshire, 12 miles away) in April 1956 when I was seven.

I have no idea what sparked these memories, because none of this had crossed my mind before I went to bed. In fact, I can’t remember ever thinking about this topic. And this is all the more strange because I have very little interest in film. I watch the occasional movie on TV (I like a good Western), but I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema. Might be 35 years ago when my daughters were small.


Anyway, let me fill in some details. In 1956, Leek boasted three cinemas: The Grand Theatre (on the corner of High St and Field St); The Palace (at the end of High St on the corner with Salisbury St); and The Majestic (on the corner of Union St and Horton St, off Stockwell St). Leek doesn’t have any stand-alone cinema today. [1]

The Majestic was destroyed in a fire around 1961. Part of the Buxton and Leek College has since been built on that site. The Grand closed its doors in 1986 and was demolished and replaced by housing in 2003. The Palace (later renamed the Regal) converted to a bingo club in 1963. After the bingo club was closed down in 1987, it became a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was also demolished in 2003 and replaced, like The Grand, by housing.

The photos below show (clockwise from top left): an aerial view of High St with The Grand in the center (you can just see the curved roof of The Palace on the right); The Grand Theatre; The Palace; and The Majestic after the fire in 1961. These photos were originally posted by members [2] of the Facebook group, The History & Heritage of Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The Grand also had a stage, and each year a local amateur operatic society, The Leekensians, staged a production there, generally one of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

The Majestic was somewhat of a ‘fleapit’, rather run down. I don’t think it was much of a loss to the town when it burnt down.


Anyway, there I was, still lying awake around 3 am or so, wondering why on earth memories of cinemas back in the day were coming to the surface. I haven’t lived in Leek since October 1967 when I moved away to university—apart from short visits to my parents.

To complicate my ‘insomnia’, I then wondered what ‘memorable’ films I had seen at each cinema. And, as if by magic, the titles of three films spontaneously popped into my mind, films that were released in 1956 and 1957: High Society, Old Yeller, and The Mountain. While Old Yeller was a ‘children’s film’, I’m not so sure why I was allowed to see the other two.

No wonder I wasn’t able to sleep. The films are quite different genres (musical, family adventure, action), none regarded as blockbusters in their heyday. But there they were, emerging from the deep recesses of my mind.


Cole Porter in the 1930s

I watched High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra at The Grand. It is a romantic musical comedy, and was directed by Charles Walters. This was the last film that Grace Kelly made before she gave up this kind of stardom and married Prince Rainier of Monaco.

The film features many classic songs penned by Cole Porter, but among the most memorable are Who Wants To Be A Millionaire performed by Sinatra and Celeste Holm, and the duet between Crosby and Sinatra, Well, Did You Evah!, (originally written by Porter in 1939 for another musical, and adapted for High Society). The film also featured Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and his Band (as themselves).

High Society was a commercial success, and is revived on TV from time to time. But I’ve never seen the next two films again since the 1950s.


Old Yeller, a ‘family picture’ directed by Robert Stevenson, was released in 1957 by the Walt Disney studio. It starred Fess Parker (of the Davy Crockett miniseries fame) Dorothy McGuire, and a young Tommy Kirk. The film is based on the 1956 book by Fred Gipson. I watched this at The Palace, with my elder brother Ed, and I think with my Mum and Dad.

The film tells the tale ‘about a boy [Travis] and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas.’ The dog, Old Yeller, is a labrador-retriever cross.

The bond is strong between Travis and the dog that, in the course of the film, is attacked by feral hogs while out hunting. Old Yeller develops rabies, becoming aggressive. Towards the end of the film, Travis takes it upon himself to shoot his dog. You can watch that scene on YouTube.

Quite a powerful message for a young audience. Typical Disney.

In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Now the third film, The Mountain (directed by Edward Dmytryk) is quite dark. I know I went to watch it with my mother at The Majestic. But on reflection it probably wasn’t altogether suitable for a boy of eight or nine.

Set in the french Alps and starring Spencer Tracy and a young Robert Wagner, The Mountain was based on the novel La neige en deuil, a 1952 French novel by Henri Troyat. This novel was inspired by the crash of an Air India flight in 1950.

Spencer Tracy (in 1948) and Robert Wagner (in 1967).

A plane crashes on Mont Blanc and is reputed to be carrying gold bullion. Christopher Teller (Wagner) persuades his reluctant elder brother and skilled mountaineer, Zachary (played by Tracy) to take him to the crash site so he can rob the dead passengers.

When they arrive at the crash site, they encounter one of the passengers, a young Indian woman, still alive in the wrecked fuselage. Despite greedy Christopher’s insistence that they should leave her to die, Zachary prevails and they begin the long climb back down the mountain with the injured woman. Christopher attempts to cross a snow bridge (against the advice of his experienced brother), and falls to his death.

For some reason this film has always had a ‘hold’ on me. The moment when Zachary and Christopher discover the injured woman (probably the first time I’d seen an Indian woman) has stayed with me. It’s strange how these things can have an impact although not dramatic.

The Mountain was not a box office success. Maybe it was the implausibility of Tracy playing an older brother to Wagner. He was, in fact, thirty years old than Wagner.


Since this bout of ‘cinema insomnia’ I’ve actually been sleeping somewhat better. Having brought these remote memories to the surface they are no longer niggling away in the background, so to speak. I wonder if others have this same problem?


[1] Local Leek historian Neil Collingwood recently published a couple of articles about the town’s cinemas in the town’s Post & Times newspaper, and he has kindly shared them with me here.

[2] Matthew Adams; Jason Brown; Neil Collingwood (x3)