There’s more to genetic resources than Svalbard

Way above the Arctic Circle (in fact at 78°N) there is a very large and cold hole in the ground. Mostly it is dark. Few people visit it on a daily basis.

A germplasm backup for the world
Nevertheless it’s a very important hole in the ground. It is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where more than 70 genebanks have placed — for long-term security, and under so-called blackbox storage [1] — a duplicate sample of seeds from their genetic resources (or germplasm) collections of plant species important for agriculture. Many of the most important and genetically diverse germplasm collections are backed up in Svalbard. But there are hundreds more collections, including some very important national collections, still not represented there.

A beacon of light – and hope – shining out over the Arctic landscape. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

Since it opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault has hardly ever been out of the media; here is a recent story from Spain’s El Pais, for example. If the public knows anything at all about genetic resources and conservation of biodiversity, they have probably heard about that in relation to Svalbard (and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex).

The Svalbard Vault is a key and vital component of a worldwide network of genebanks and genetic resources collections. It provides a long-term safety backup for germplasm that is, without doubt, the genetic foundation for food security; I have blogged about this before. At Svalbard, the seeds are ‘sleeping’ deep underground, waiting to be wakened when the time comes to resurrect a germplasm collection that is under threat. Waiting for the call that hopefully never comes.

Svalbard comes to the rescue
But that call did come in 2015 for the first and only time since the vault opened. Among the first depositors in Svalbard in 2008 were the international genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium, including the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The ICARDA genebank conserves important cereal and legume collections from from the Fertile Crescent (the so-called ‘Cradle of Agriculture’) in the Middle East, and from the Mediterranean region. Until the civil war forced them out of Syria, ICARDA’s headquarters were based in Aleppo. Now it has reestablished its genebank operations in Morocco and Lebanon. In order to re-build its active germplasm collections, ICARDA retrieved over 15,000 samples from Svalbard in 2015, the only time that this has happened since the vault was opened. Now, thanks to successful regeneration of those seeds in Morocco and Lebanon, samples are now being returned to Svalbard to continue their long sleep underground.

ICARDA genebank staff ready to send precious seeds off to the Arctic. Dr Ahmed Amri, the ICARDA Head of Genetic Resources, is third from the right. Photo courtesy of ICARDA.

Another point that is often not fully understood, is that Svalbard is designated as a ‘secondary’ safety backup site. Genebanks sending material to Svalbard are expected to have in place a primary backup site and agreement. In the case of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which I am most familiar with for obvious reasons, duplicate germplasm samples of almost the entire collection of 127,000 accessions, are stored under blackbox conditions in the -18°C vaults of The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although ICARDA had safety backup arrangements in place for its collections, these involved several institutes. To reestablish its active collections in 2015 it was simpler and more cost effective to retrieve the samples from just one site: Svalbard.

We see frequent reports in the media about seeds being shipped to Svalbard.  Just last week, the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, announced that it was sending seeds of potatoes from the Commonwealth Potato Collection to Svalbard; it was even reported on the BBC. A few days ago, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico sent a ton of seeds to the vault. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Cali, Colombia sent its latest shipment of beans and tropical forages last October.

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Dr Åsmund Asdal, Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), receives a shipment of germplasm from CIAT in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

The germplasm iceberg
Key and vital as Svalbard is, it is just the tip of the germplasm iceberg. The Svalbard vault is just like the part of an iceberg that you see. There’s a lot more going on in the genetic resources world that the public never, or hardly ever, sees.

There are, for example, other types of genetic resources that will never be stored at Svalbard. Why? Some plant species cannot be easily stored as seeds because they either reproduce vegetatively (and are even sterile or have low fertility at the very least; think of bananas, potatoes, yams or cassava); or have so-called recalcitrant seeds that are short-lived or cannot be stored at low temperature and moisture content like the seeds of many cereals and other food crop species (the very species stored at Svalbard). Many fruit tree species have recalcitrant seeds.

Apart from the ICARDA story, which was, for obvious reasons, headline news, we rarely see or hear in the media the incredible stories behind those seeds: where they were collected, who is working hard to keep them alive and studying the effects of storage conditions on seed longevity, and how plant breeders have crossed them with existing varieties to make them more resistant to diseases or better able to tolerate environmental change, such as higher temperatures, drought or flooding. Last year I visited a potato and sweet potato genebank in Peru, a bean and cassava genebank in Colombia, and one for wheat and maize in Mexico; then in Kenya and Ethiopia, I saw how fruit trees and forage species are being conserved.

Here is what happens at IRRI. You can’t do these things at Svalbard!

These are the day-to-day (and quite expensive) operations that genebanks manage to keep germplasm alive: as seeds, as in vitro cultures, or as field collections.

But what is the value of genebank collections? Check out a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a meeting last June. One can argue that all germplasm has an inherent value. We value it for its very existence (just like we would whales or tigers). Germplasm diversity is a thing of beauty.

Most landraces or wild species in a genebank have an option value, a potential to provide a benefit at some time in the future. They might be the source of a key trait to improve the productivity of a crop species. Very little germplasm achieves actual value, when it used in plant breeding and thereby bringing about a significant increase in productivity and economic income.

There are some spectacular examples, however, and if only a small proportion of the economic benefits of improved varieties was allocated for long-term conservation, the funding challenge for genebanks would be met. Human welfare and nutrition are also enhanced through access to better crop varieties.

impact-paper_small_page_01Last year, in preparation for a major fund-raising initiative for its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust prepared an excellent publication that describes the importance of genebanks and their collections, why they are needed, and how they have contributed to agricultural productivity. The economic benefits from using crop wild relatives are listed in Table 2 on page 8. Just click on the cover image (right) to open a copy of the paper. A list of wild rice species with useful agronomic traits is provided in Table 3 on page 9.

Linking genebanks and plant breeding
Let me give you, once again, a couple of rice examples that illustrate the work of genebanks and the close links with plant breeding, based on careful study of genebank accessions.

The indica variety IR72 was bred at IRRI, and released in 1990. It became the world’s highest yielding rice variety. One of its ancestors, IR36 was, at one time, grown on more than 11 million hectares. IR72 has 22 landrace varieties and a single wild rice, Oryza nivara, in its pedigree. It gets its short stature ultimately from IR8, the first of the so-called ‘miracle rices’ that was released in 1966. IRRI celebrated the 50th anniversary of that release recently. Resistance to a devastating disease, grassy stunt virus, was identified in just one accession of O. nivara from India. That resistance undoubtedly contributed to the widespread adoption of both IR36 and IR72. Just click on the pedigree diagram below to open a larger image [2].

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The pedigree of rice variety IR72, that includes 22 landrace varieties and one wild species, Oryza nivara. Courtesy of IRRI.

A more recent example has been the search for genes to protect rice varieties against flooding [3]. Now that might seem counter-intuitive given that rice in the main grows in flooded fields. But if rice is completely submerged for any length of time, it will, like any other plant, succumb to submergence and die. Or if it does recover, the rice crop will be severely retarded and yield very poorly.

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene after a period of inundation

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene following transient complete submergence. Photo courtesy of IRRI.

Seasonal flooding is a serious issue for farmers in Bangladesh and eastern India. So the search was on for genes that would confer tolerance of transient complete submergence. And it took 18 years or more from the discovery of the SUB1 gene to the release of varieties that are now widely grown in farmers’ fields, and bringing productivity backed to farming communities that always faced seasonal uncertainty. These are just two examples of the many that have been studied and reported on in the scientific press.

There are many more examples from other genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium that maintain that special link between conservation and use. But also from other collections around the world where scientists are studying and using germplasm samples, often using the latest molecular genetics approaches [4] for the benefit of humanity. I’ve just chosen to highlight stories from rice, the crop I’m most familiar with.

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[1] Blackbox storage is described thus on the Crop Trust website (https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/): “The depositors who will deposit material will do so consistently with relevant national and international law. The Seed Vault will only agree to receive seeds that are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.

Each country or institution will still own and control access to the seeds they have deposited. The Black Box System entails that the depositor is the only one that can withdraw the seeds and open the boxes.” 

[2] Zeigler, RS (2014). Food security, climate change and genetic resources. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 1-15.

[3] Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ (2014). Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 251-269.

[4] McNally, KL (2014). Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 166-189.

Only a heartbeat away – who was that Vice President?

With a new administration now firmly ensconced in the White House, I did wonder the other day (after seeing a photo-op with Vice President Mike Pence standing alongside The Donald) how long it would take for this VP to fade into obscurity (or semi-obscurity at least). I wonder if he is beginning to regret life under his new boss. Well, at least during this four-year term, Trump cannot say ” You’re fired!”, but he can side-line his vice president quite effectively if he chooses to do so. And I suspect with this self-centered, narcissistic President, that is exactly what will happen.

However, VP Pence has already left one legacy by casting the deciding vote in the Senate to confirm Betsy DeVos as the incoming Secretary of Education, and he sounds rather pleased with himself.

The fate of VPs
Vice Presidents have been side-lined before. After all, under the US constitution, the only formal—and limited—roles for the Vice President are ‘to become President, should the President become unable to serve, and to act as the presiding officer of the Senate‘.

384px-dan_quayle_official_dod_photoOn the inauguration platform on 20 January, alongside former Presidents Carter, Clinton, George W Bush, and Obama, stood former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Dan who? I bet many people who read this blog will never have heard of Dan Quayle, or if they have, will have forgotten about his four years in office under George Bush Senior from 1989-1993. He was the 44th Vice President, remembered perhaps only for his inability to spell ‘potato’.

Anyway, this got me thinking.

Harry S Truman was the 33rd President when I was born in November 1948. He had assumed the presidency in 1945 on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt, just 82 days after having been sworn in on 20 January. He then served out the remainder of Roosevelt’s term until the general election of 1948. Truman won a famous election victory just a couple of weeks before my birth, defeating Thomas Dewey in the face of all the election polls to the contrary. He remained in office until 1953. Between Roosevelt’s death and his election win in 1948, Truman served without a Vice President; I guess in constitutional terms his successor, should he have died in office, was the Speaker of the House. From 1949-1953, Truman’s Vice President was Alben W Barkley from Kentucky, consigned like so many Vice Presidents to the dustbin of history.

Then came:

  • Eisenhower – Nixon
  • Kennedy – Johnson
  • Johnson – Humphrey
  • Nixon – Agnew / Ford
  • Ford – Rockefeller
  • Carter – Mondale
  • Reagan – Bush Sr
  • Bush Sr – Quayle
  • Clinton – Gore
  • Bush Jr – Cheney
  • Obama – Biden
  • Trump – Pence

Lyndon B Johnson became President on the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson served for 14 months without a Vice President, until his election victory in his own right in November 1964 alongside Hubert Humphrey.

Richard Nixon fought an unsuccessful election against Kennedy in 1960; but he did eventually win the presidency in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey, only to resign half-way through his second term following the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew from Maryland was forced to resign in October 1973.

Agnew’s resignation triggered the first use of the 25th Amendment, specifically Section 2, as the vacancy prompted the appointment and confirmation of Gerald Ford, the House Minority Leader, as his successor. This remains one of only two instances in which the amendment has been employed to fill a vice-presidential vacancy. The second time was when Ford, after becoming President upon Nixon’s resignation, chose Nelson Rockefeller (originally Agnew’s mentor in the moderate wing of the Republican Party) to succeed him as Vice President (from Wikipedia).

Gerald Ford became the 38th President in August 1974 on the resignation of President Nixon; he also served without a Vice President until the appointment of Nelson Rockefeller in December that year.

Some Vice Presidents left a mark on history; most don’t. It has been interesting over the past eight years to observe the relationship between Barack Obama and his VP Joe Biden – a ‘bromance’ almost. I think Obama’s respect for Biden was summed up in his award to Biden, just a few days before leaving office, of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (With Distinction), the USA’s highest civilian honour.

Vice President Biden will long be remembered. So goes Pence? I doubt it. Unless . . . ?

 

“Oi’ll give it foive”

coat_of_arms_of_birmingham-svgBirmingham lies at the heart of England. It is the UK’s second city.

I first visited Birmingham in the 1960s. At that time I was living in Leek, just under 60 miles to the north in North Staffordshire. I moved to Birmingham in September 1970 when I began my graduate studies in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham, never envisaging that I would return a decade later to join the staff of the same department. Since 1981, my wife and I have lived in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of Birmingham in northeast Worcestershire (with a 19 year break while I worked in the Philippines).

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Birmingham city center, overlooking New Street Station, the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and Rotunda, and the BT Tower, and looking towards the Black Country further on.

Birmingham is one of seven metropolitan boroughs that make up the County of  West Midlands, from Wolverhampton in the northwest to Solihull and Coventry in the southeast, and encompassing the area known as the Black Country lying to the west of Birmingham proper.

To the ears of someone from outside the region, everyone in the West Midlands speaks with the same ‘Brummie‘ accent, rated the least appealing in the nation. Shame! There are subtle differences across the region, but I can understand why most outsiders maybe hear just a single accent. You can read (and hear) what one American writer has to say about ‘Brummie’ here.

It is rather interesting to note that one Brummie, accent and all, has made it big on US television. Comedian John Oliver came to the fore on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and now in his own Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Here’s a classic Oliver monologue about Donald Trump.

And there have now been three series of the cult drama Peaky Blinders about a gangster family in Birmingham just after the ending of the First World War. Again, it’s amazing that this became so popular on the other side of The Pond, given the strong Brummie accents, strong language, and explicit sexual content.

So what has me waxing lyrical this morning about all things Brummie? Well, last night, Heavy Metal band Black Sabbath (of Ozzy Osbourne fame) performed the second of two concerts in Birmingham at the end of an 81-date tour that began in January last year. After 50 years, Black Sabbath have hung up their guitars and microphones. Yesterday’s concert was the final one.

Birmingham is the birthplace of Heavy Metal, but it’s not a genre I appreciate. Nevertheless, this story about Black Sabbath got me thinking.

The ‘Merseyside Sound’ of the 1960s, 1970s is rightly renowned worldwide for The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, just to mention three of a very long list.

However, there was—and is—a vibrant ‘Birmingham Sound‘, with musicians and bands having an enormous impact everywhere. Do any come immediately to mind? No? Well, among the most famous are: Jeff Lynne and ELO, Roy Wood (in The Move and Wizzard), The Moody Blues, Duran DuranUB40, Dexys Midnight Runners, Slade, even Musical Youth. As anyone who follows my blog will know, I’m a great Jeff Lynne-ELO-Traveling Wilburys fan.

Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie was born in Lancashire, but from early childhood was raised in Birmingham. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was born in West Bromwich in the Black Country, but grew up in Kidderminster, nine miles west of Bromsgrove.

So let’s enjoy some of the Brummie talent.

Flowers in the Rain was the first record to be played at the launch of BBC Radio 1 by DJ Tony Blackburn in 1967.

So what’s this Oi’ll give it foive business?

In the early to mid 1960s, there was a TV series, Thank Your Lucky Stars produced by the Birmingham-based commercial channel, ATV, and broadcast nationwide. In the show’s Wikipedia page it states: Audience participation was a strong feature of Thank Your Lucky Stars, and the Spin-a-Disc section, where a guest DJ and three teenagers reviewed three singles, is a very well remembered feature of the show. Generally American singles were reviewed. It was on this section that Janice Nicholls appeared. She was a former office clerk from the English Midlands who became famous for the catchphrase “Oi’ll give it foive” which she said with a strong Black Country accent.

Janice Nicholls released this dreadful single in 1963, but at least you can hear her say Oi’ll give it foive.

Among the notable comedians and actors proudly from the region are Sir Lenny Henry (who hails from Dudley in the Black Country), and Jasper Carrott and Julie Walters, who are true Brummies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narcissus was an amateur compared to The Donald

Do any of these words describe the new resident in the White House? All of them? That would surely be a burden for anyone to carry. Not so, it seems, Donald J Trump, who has made a career out of being the High Priest of Narcissism.

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It’s just two weeks since The Donald was inaugurated as the 45th POTUS. Good grief! It seems like a lifetime. Now that I’m retired, I often wonder to my wife where time has flown to. When considering all that’s happening right now in the USA, and the profound polarizing impact of this dysfunctional administration, it seems as though we are wading through molasses.

The next four years stretch out endlessly ahead of us (if DJT survives that long), because whatever His Orangeness says or does, affects everyone, not just the USA. He sneezes; we catch a cold.

Following his unbelievable (for all the wrong reasons) Inaugural Address from the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC on 20 January, The Donald has ratcheted up his invective and vitriol. His minions on the White House staff (Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway come immediately to mind) have stepped into the fray and revealed themselves to be unthinking and deluded acolytes, following the Donald line without question. The GOP in both Houses of Congress appears to have rolled over to have its collective tummy tickled.

Yes. Donald Trump is a narcissist. It’s all about him. He’s playing at being President. It’s the ultimate reality show, only the stakes are much higher, and he’s the apprentice. I think he was in love with the idea of being President. That’s why he ran. He liked the attention he would receive, the fawning, the center stage. Now, everything he does will be scrutinised, and I have great faith in political cartoonists on both sides of the Atlantic to pull him down more than just a peg or two. I signed up for Facebook page called Editorial & Political Cartoons; it’s a great resource.

And because he is so notoriously thin-skinned, this will eventually get to him. Expect a YUMONGOUS reaction before too long, especially when they insinuate that he is just a puppet. Take this cartoon distributed by Pia Guerra on Twitter just five days ago. As the narcissist sans pareil, The Donald won’t stand for this.

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Cartoonists are already focusing on Trumpian characteristics, such as:

  • his remarkable hairstyle;
  • the kaleidoscope of facial expressions (the snarl, the pursed lips);
  • his hands and fingers (small as they are) and exaggerated gestures; and
  • the over-long tie (more like an extended loin-cloth).

He has to be the center of attention, referring to all his ‘achievements’ (but not his multiple bankruptcies) as ‘great’, ‘YUGE’, ‘the best’, etc., while disparaging others. His disrespectful comments are too numerous to list.

His speeches—if you can call them such—are mostly incoherent ramblings often punctuated by his two favourite words: ‘I’ and ‘Me’. Here’s a good example, made at a breakfast recently in the White House to commemorate Black History month. It’s also hard to believe he made these comments at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this week. And talk about disrespect. During his visit to the CIA a short while after his inauguration, and speaking to an invited (and ‘packed’?) audience in front of the CIA Memorial Wall, he couldn’t resist boasting about the number of times he had appeared on the front cover of Time, as well the unprecedented record crowds who had turned up to his inauguration. He was certainly obsessed with those ‘alternative facts’. It just galls him that he simply is NOT the best.

Anyway, to get back to my original theme of Trump’s narcissism. I posted this simple comment on my Facebook page a couple of days ago or so: Narcissus was an amateur compared to Trump. And that’s why I decided to elaborate on that here.

I also posted the famous Caravaggio painting of Narcissus, painted between 1597 and 1599. Then, lying in bed this morning, thinking about today’s blog post, I wondered if I could superimpose Trump’s head in the painting. However, Google came to the rescue, and I found someone had been there before me.

Furthermore, the author of Poppa’s Cottage had already visited the theme of Trump’s dangerous narcissism in August 2016, and who has written more eloquently than I ever could.

I guess we can all hope that Congress will regain its senses and tell The Donald in no uncertain terms: YOU’RE FIRED!

 

 

America the Beautiful, Donald the Ugly!

I probably wasted a couple of hours yesterday afternoon watching the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted to see how Trump would behave. I wasn’t disappointed. I even posted on Facebook while he was delivering his Inaugural Speech that he sounded like he was still on the campaign trail. It must continue to rankle, being such a narcissus I guess, that he won the election by a landslide loss to Hillary Clinton of almost three million votes.

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I bet he had his fingers secretly crossed . . . 

How depressing the spectacle was, for many reasons (and it seems that despite whatever spin Trump puts on it, his Inauguration was decidedly low-key) I was left at the end with a profound sense of unease, depressed even. It was the same feeling I had (and continue to have) after the EU referendum last June, and the UK voted (by the smallest of margins for such a social, economic, and constitutional—and irrevocable—change) for Brexit.

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Is Barron Trump thinking about all the stick he is going to take when he goes back to school in New York on Monday?

After Trump had taken the oath, the former President and Mrs Obama left Washington, DC on board a helicopter bound for the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, en route to a well-deserved vacation (and period for reflection) in California. The BBC live broadcast captured an image of the helicopter flying northwest over Washington carrying the former president and his wife away.

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And I had this feeling that going with them was their dignity, decency, cordiality, ethical behaviour, and vision. Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s now filled with the mean-spiritedness of the Trump Administration, and the crass ostentation that The Donald personifies.

Welcome to the USA – about to become an extension of Trump, Inc. That’s certainly the impression seeing The Donald surrounded by his family. And the photo of him sitting at his desk in the Oval Office later on in the day, with Vice President Pence beside him (how soon will he fade from the limelight?), and Trump’s son-in-law and now Senior Adviser to the President, Jared Kushner (now there’s a prime case of nepotism).

As for Trump’s tie, I found this apt descriptionRed is an aggressive color that can make us feel passionate, angry, or hungry. The candidates in red ties want you to think they are decisive, bold, assertive, and powerful. Candidates accused of flip-flopping often roll out the red ties. Sound familiar?

We have a personal connection to the USA. Our elder daughter completed much of her education there, in St Paul, Minnesota, where she met her husband Michael, and where she continues to live and work, with children Callum and Zoë. We have visited the USA many times over the past 25 years,and have travelled extensively. Everywhere we went we have been met with warmth, courtesy and cordiality. I don’t recognise that in Trump’s take on America in his Inaugural Speech. No, I don’t deny that there is deprivation in swathes across many states, sites of former heavy industry that has been lost to competition elsewhere, or been overtaken by technology. These folks feel they have been neglected (just as those who voted to Leave the EU last June here in the UK), and Trump tapped into that sense of isolation.

He’s a multiple bankrupt billionaire businessman who is focused on one thing, and one thing only: himself (and his business opportunities of course). It’s unlikely to be America First! Trump First! Just like his branding franchises, will it soon be TRUMP USA?

What interest will he have in the common man and woman. Indeed one of his first Executive Orders, signed just hours after taking the oath of office, was to begin the process of rolling-back the Affordable Care Act. And that will directly affect the very constituency that expect him to perform miracles for them. And then any reference to climate change was removed from the White House website.

Trump has also surrounded himself with like-minded and very rich sycophants in his cabinet (if they are confirmed). Just like Pence, what influence will they actually have? The Tweet is mightier than the sword!

You know, Trump could found his own church (just like a number of fundamentalist preachers in the USA), and become the High Priest. After all, religion is faith, belief. Not fact. His invocation of God several times towards the end of his speech was, by the way, the depth of hypocrisy.

And as a Brit, it sickens me to see all our Conservative politicians wetting themselves over their future relationships with the Trump Administration. Also, deluding themselves that the UK will be ‘at the front of the queue’ when it comes to relations and trade deals with the USA (on American terms, of course). Trump is about to screw us. After all, Trump declared it would be America First! (after him, of course).

Then there’s the spectacle of UKIP former leader and self-proclaimed non-entity Nigel Farage almost orgasmic now that the bust of Winston S Churchill has been restored to its ‘rightful’ place in the Oval Office.

Don’t get me wrong. The UK needs to develop a solid relationship with whatever administration resides in the White House. But Trump has clearly signalled where his priorities lie. And that should give us all pause to consider what the next fours years hold in store, not only for the USA, but for all of us. A scary thought indeed.

 

Christmas is over . . . time to take the tree down

We took our Christmas decorations down on 6th January. That’s a tradition we have followed in our home as long as I can remember.

However, ‘taking down the tree’ has taken on a rather different aspect this year. We originally scheduled a local tree surgeon to fell a large tree in the back garden on 6 January. This is a tree that we planted almost 34 years ago. However, a job he started that morning overran by early afternoon; so the felling was re-scheduled for today.

Quite sad really. Philippa wasn’t quite a year old in 1983 when we decided to replace a ten foot weeping willow tree. But what to plant in its stead?

After some deliberation, we chose a West Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) because of its elegant white (peeling) bark, that would continue to give us some ‘colour’ in the garden, once it had dropped its leaves in autumn, even in the depths of winter. And it has.

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However, we never expected it to thrive quite as well as it has. In spite of being pruned at least twice in the past decade, it has continue to grow and is now really too big for the garden, even towering above the roof of our neighbour’s house to the rear of our property. And because of its extensive root system, it’s probably sucking more water from the surrounding lawn and flower beds than is good for them.

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This birch was just a young sapling, maybe six feet tall (and perhaps five years old) when I collected it from one of our local garden centers, Webbs of Wychbold, just a few miles south of Bromsgrove on the way to the nearest junction with the M5 motorway. In 1983, I was driving a Mark III Ford Escort, and I was able to fit the tree inside, with the pot in the passenger foot well, and the trunk and few branches stretching back over the seats towards the tailgate.

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Now it’s an impressive tree. In the summer, when in full leaf, it unfortunately shades about half the garden almost all day long, even as the sun moves round from east to west (we are south-facing, more or less, in the back garden).

Here’s a time-lapse video taken earlier today as the tree was felled. Sad to watch, but it’s amazing already how much more light is getting into the garden. We had a dusting of snow overnight, and the wind had picked up, so Chris Bishop, the tree surgeon, came to check early on what the state of the garden was. He told me that had there been too much snow he would have postponed the felling until another day. That wasn’t the case, and over the course of about three hours (including tea and lunch breaks), down came the tree.

Here’s the aftermath. You could say we now have a gardening ‘blank canvass’.

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We have yet to decide what will replace the birch. We must surely have a tree in the garden. High on our current list are an ornamental crab apple, maybe even an edible apple variety, or even a flowering cherry. Yes, it was sad to see our Himalayan ‘friend’ dismembered, limb by limb. Now, with more sunlight in the garden, we have many more opportunities to develop other planting options. Watch this space!

I’m a Kindle virgin . . .

594587Robert Blincoe. Not, I suggest, a familiar name. Somewhat unusual, as well.

However, in the early decades of the 19th century, the story of Robert Blincoe was told in an 1828 memoir by Lancashire-born writer John Brown, which appeared as weekly instalments in a radical working class newspaper, The Lion. It was re-published in a widely-disseminated pamphlet in 1832.

Born illegitimate in London in the early 1790s, never knowing his parents, he entered a workhouse at the age of four, but by his sixth birthday had been ‘apprenticed’ far away in the Peak District of Derbyshire to a brutal cotton spinner, along with dozens of other workhouse or work’us children. An image of his twisted and deformed body appears on the cover of the 1832 pamphlet.

They toiled under the most appalling conditions, up to 18 hours a day, subsisting on the most meagre of meals, going to bed each night tired, cold and hungry. Working among the dusty and dangerous spinning mules, these children were subjected to savage beatings, and risked life and limb crawling among the machinery. It’s no surprise that many of these children did not survive beyond their teen years, if that long.

Robert Blincoe was different. Not only did he survive, but prospered, married Martha Simpson, and had three children, and the youngest, Robert Blincoe, Jr, graduated from Queen’s College, Cambridge University, and became a celebrated Anglican preacher in London. His middle child, Martha, married into the gentry, and it was in her house in Macclesfield, Cheshire that Robert Blincoe, Sr. died in 1860, just a year after his wife.

It took decades for the law to be enacted that prohibited the employment of children in factories, or even reduced the hours they (and adults) were permitted to work.

blincoeBlincoe’s story is both appalling and inspiring, and I’ve just finished reading an account of his life and times in a 2005 book by historian John Waller of Michigan State University. Waller suggests that celebrated novelist Charles Dickens based the character of Oliver Twist (in his second novel, published in 1837) on Robert Blincoe. Perhaps, or not maybe. In an interesting article published in The Guardian in 2005, Blincoe’s great-great-great grandson Nicholas Blincoe examines the case for this proposition. Dickens must have been aware of Blincoe’s story. He was a reporter in parliament, and the political campaign to reform working practices in mills and factories was current during this period of Dickens’s career.

dickensSo what has all this to do with Amazon Kindle? Well, Blincoe’s story and the possible Dickens connection has inspired me, given me the challenge even, to work my way through his 15 novels¹, most of which were originally published as weekly instalments in one publication or another.

So yesterday, I downloaded David Copperfield on to my wife’s Kindle (a gift from Hannah and Michael in 2015). This is the first time I have used a Kindle, and it takes a little getting used to. I much prefer the feel (and smell) of a book. But the Kindle is very convenient, I must admit.

David Copperfield was, apparently, Dickens’s favourite novel, but I’ve never read it. I am familiar with many of the novels and their campaigning themes, mainly through TV or films. However, it was quite common when I was in high school in the 1960s to have one of Dickens’s novel as the set text in the English Literature syllabus. Great Expectations appeared on the list quite a few times.

Among the best film and TV adaptations of Dickens’s work must surely figure the 1951 film Scrooge (starring Alastair Sim), based on A Christmas Carol (a short story published in 1843), and A Tale of Two Cities (1958) with Dirk Bogarde starring as Sydney Carton. One recent TV adaptation of Great Expectations (first broadcast in December 2011), starred Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, a slightly controversial casting but, in my opinion, an inspired one. Then from 26 December 2015, the BBC broadcast an innovative 20 episode series, Dickensian, based on the characters in his novels, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Anyway, I’ve set myself my own Dickensian challenge for 2017. Wish me luck!

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¹The novels (and other works) of Charles Dickens:
The Pickwick Papers – 1836
Oliver Twist – 1837
Nicholas Nickleby – 1838
The Old Curiosity Shop – 1840
Barnaby Rudge – 1841
Martin Chuzzlewit – 1843
Dombey and Son – 1846
David Copperfield – 1849
Bleak House – 1852
Hard Times – 1854
Little Dorrit – 1855
A Tale of Two Cities – 1859
Great Expectations – 1860
Our Mutual Friend – 1864
The Mystery of Edwin Drood – 1870