After 157 years, Dickens’s words still ring true

dickens

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

These are the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ 12th novel, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859.

These words could also be an accurate description of the past year. What a year 2016 has turned out to be, for so many reasons. I guess we can also now say that we live in the post-truth age.

The best (and worst) for me . . .
Personally, 2016 was the best of times and the worst.

In July, our family got together for the first time. Hannah Michael with Callum and Zoë came over to the UK from Minnesota; Philippa and Andi with Elvis and Felix came down from Newcastle upon Tyne, and we all met up for two weeks’ holiday in the New Forest in Hampshire. A splendid time was had by all!

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In February, I was invited to lead a team of three genetic resources experts to evaluate a multi-center program of the CGIAR genebanks.

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L to R: Jenin Assaf (of the CGIAR’s Independent Evaluation Arrangement, based at FAO in Rome), Marise Borja and Brian Ford-Lloyd (team members), and me.

That evaluation took me to Germany, France, Italy (twice), Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia and Australia. As I write this article the team is writing first drafts of its assessment of the program, and we hope to have everything wrapped up by early February. I’ll be glad when it’s done and dusted. I’ve thought about genetic resources and genebanks almost every waking hour since I was first invited to join the evaluation.

Besides our break with the family in the New Forest, Steph and I also managed our ‘annual’ vacation in Minnesota with Hannah and family. We took the opportunity of exploring Minnesota some more, and ‘trekking’ to find the source of the mighty Mississippi River. Actually trekking is rather an exaggeration and there were plenty of signposts showing where we’d encounter the Mississippi as it dribbled, so to speak, out of Lake Itasca at the beginning of its 2000 plus mile journey south to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Personally, 2016 was also the worst of times for me following an accident at the beginning of January when I slipped on black ice, dislocating my right foot and snapping the fibula. As a consequence I am now the proud owner of a long metal plate holding the bones in my right leg together. Once I was allowed to become mobile, I used crutches then a stick for many months. I only gave up using my stick about four weeks ago. I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made, but I’m in for the long haul. My ankle and leg still give me pain, and whereas in the past I might often cover three to five miles on my daily walk, I can still only comfortably cover about two miles. I’m sure this will get better.

And, worldwide, among the worst . . .
But my paltry troubles fade into insignificance compared to what has been played out on the international stage.

The suffering of Syrians in Aleppo (well, in Syria in general and throughout other countries of the Middle East terrorised by Daesh) seems never-ending. Talk about political spin! I have visited Aleppo two (maybe three) times. I was once a candidate for a senior position at ICARDA, one of the centers of the CGIAR, and I guess I would have accepted it had it been offered. Syria looked like an interesting country, and everyone I spoke with at ICARDA told me what a safe place Aleppo was. How times change! Will that seemingly interminable civil war come to an end? As we approach the close of 2016, the battle for Aleppo has ended (more or less), but Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are not going to rest until they have turned the rest of Syria into a pile of rubble. Victory, it seems, comes at any price. Shame on them! The fate of civilians is not part of the security equation.

And there have been political earthquakes in the USA, in the UK (and Europe), and in the Philippines.

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PEOTUS – heaven help us!

The Donald . . . what more can I say?
Who would have believed that His Orangeness, The Donald, Mr Drumpf would secure the American presidency, albeit on a minority popular vote; 2.8 million votes more for Hillary Clinton is quite a margin, even though The Donald still claims he won by a landslide. But then again, his whole campaign was built on mis-truths (aka LIES), denials of comments he made in earlier interviews, lack of policy, a lack of any ability, it seems, to string two coherent words together, although they were, of course, the ‘best words’.

From what little he contributed to the first presidential debate, and in various speeches reported in the news, it’s hard to understand what he really means to Make America Great Again. Based on his choices for cabinet positions, his equivocation over continued links to all his nefarious business interests, and what seems like his complete lack of attention to the things you might expect PEOTUS to take notice of, the USA must be in for a bumpy ride over the next months. Trump scares the s**t out of me. He’s only predictable by his unpredictability, and in a fragile world, I am concerned that such a maverick (and moron) should occupy the most powerful political position in any country.

Brexit (and the clowns who are  taking us out of the EU) . . .
Nifa (Nigel Farage), BoJo (Boris Johnson) and MiGo (Michael Gove. Arch clowns among many.

We’ve certainly had to put up with our fair share of bozos in UK politics these past months. I voted Remain in last June’s referendum on continuing membership of the European Union. I was one of the 48% who voted. We’re not out of the EU yet, so we’ve not seen the full effect of what might happen. I’m not optimistic, although I’d like to be. Those who supported Leave seem to believe that the other 27 countries will simply roll over and give the UK (or will that be ‘UK lite’, i.e. minus Scotland?) whatever it wants. I fear not. So many benefits were touted if we voted Leave.

I think that worse is yet to come, and it will be years before everything has been sorted out or regularised. It’s not my generation that will suffer. But those who come after us. I feel the Leavers were sold a pony by the likes of Farage, Johnson and Gove. And on the day after the referendum it was clear they had no idea of what to do next. And the government still has no idea what to do. But ‘Brexit means Brexit‘. Time to apply for an Irish passport perhaps – I’m eligible.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachith pose for a photograph during a courtesy visit at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos on September 7. TOTO LOZANO/PPD

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Roa Duterte

A psychopath at the helm in the Philippines . . .
Du30. Rodrigo Duterte, 16th President, ex-Mayor of Davao City in the southern island of Mindanao. He won last May’s general election by a landslide. He’s very popular.

He’s also very outspoken, crude, and—by his own admission—a murderer. An avowed strongman, perhaps he was the man of the moment needed to bring some discipline to day-to-day life in the Philippines, with its political dynasties and celebrity status among politicians. He had the opportunity to make a great difference to the lives of many impoverished Filipinos. Maybe he still can.

He declared war on drug pushers and users, and there have been thousands of extrajudicial killings in the few months since he was inaugurated. It’s clear that his election has split public opinion in the Philippines. It’s sad for me to see how, among many of my friends, there is such a lack of hope for the future under this president.

I know that many of my Filipino friends will not appreciate my candour concerning their country. It’s hard to see how someone as crude as Duterte could be elected president. He hasn’t made friends among the international community. As leader of a country of 100 million you don’t go around calling the President of your principal ally, the USA (or used to be) a ‘son of a whore‘.

Then again, did we expect Trump to be elected in the US general election? Hardly. May we live in interesting times!

2016 is not killing people . . . 
Over the past few days there have been several reported celebrity deaths:  guitarist Rick Parfitt (68, Status Quo), singer/songwriter George Michael (53), Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher (60), author Richard Adams (96, author of Watership Down), and actress Liz Smith (95, the Royle Family). But this follows many others throughout the year: musicians David Bowie (69) and Prince (57), TV legend Sir Terry Wogan (77), and actor Gene Wilder (83). But has 2016 been unusual?

Any death is a cause for sadness among family and friends, and fans. For an elderly person we shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s always a shock, however, when sudden illness robs us of one of our icons. I was only saying to my wife early this morning that perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that some celebrities have passed away at a relatively young age. After all, several of them must have been carrying quite a ‘substance abuse and lifestyle’ load that affected their chances of long life.

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