“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).


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.







Dance as if no one is watching . . .

October 1967. I remember it well. I’d landed up in Southampton about to begin a three year BSc course in botany and geography. I’d gained a place in one of the halls of residence, South Stoneham House, and life was hunky-dory.

I think we arrived in Southampton on the Wednesday evening. On the following Saturday, the Students’ Union had organised its annual Bun Feast, when all the student societies put all their wares on display and try and persuade as many freshmen to join as possible. Like many others, I went along to see what was on offer.

1475206_origI loitered a little longer in front of the booth of the English & Scottish Folk Dance Society, and before I had chance to ‘escape’ some of the folks there had engaged me in conversation and persuaded me to come along to their next evening.

While I had long had an interest in folk music, I’d never done any folk dancing whatsoever, although I had a passing interest. Whenever there was something on the TV about folk dance I always watched. But that was it.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I did go along the next week to my first folk dance club session – and I was hooked.

It took some time to master much of the stepping for both English and Scottish country dances, but I found I was more or less ‘a natural’, with a good sense of rhythm. And for the next three years, I thoroughly enjoyed all the dancing I took part in. At the beginning of my second year in 1968 I helped found the Red Stags Morris Men, and that was my introduction to Morris dancing for more than a decade, and it really only lapsed while I was away in Latin America during the 1970s, and since 1991 when I moved to the Philippines.

I really like Scottish dancing. Mix with a great set of dancers, and dance to a band that can really make the floor bounce, and there’s nothing better.

During my Southampton days, we attended three Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festivals, at the University of Hull (in February 1968), Strathclyde University (a year later), and the University of Reading in 1970. At Hull and Strathclyde I was a member of the Scottish dance demonstration team, the first occasion only four months or so after I first began dancing.

Scottish dancing005

I don’t remember the names of two of the girls here at the Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festival at the University of Hull in 1968. Standing, L to R: Edward Johns, me, John Chubb. Sitting, L to R: Elizabeth Holgreaves, ??, ??.

The following year we were at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. Fortunately the Students’ Union subsidised our air fares to Glasgow from London Heathrow. We flew on a BEA Comet! We got through, but many of the university representatives from south of the Border were caught up in the bad weather when snow blocked many of the main routes from England to Scotland, and they eventually turned up almost 24 hours late. The evening ceilidh was wonderful.

By the 1970 festival at Reading, I had already help found the Morris side, and that year I participated only in Morris dancing. After Southampton, I moved to Birmingham to begin graduate studies, and joined the Green Man’s Morris & Sword Club, eventually becoming Squire in 1982.

By the end of the 1980s I’d given up dancing, having developed arthritis in my knees and hips. It was just too uncomfortable to carry on dancing even though my arthritis never became debilitating. I’d love to dance again, but given my current condition, it’s more than I can manage to make a two mile walk, never mind dance. Having both feet off the ground at the same time is something that my left leg and ankle would not tolerate.

Retired? Never been busier . . .


A week ago or so, I received an email from an old friend who, like me, had spent much of his career in international agricultural research. He was writing to tell me that he had now retired, giving me his latest contact details, but also musing on the void he was feeling now that he was no longer gainfully employed. Apart from a couple of small consultancies he did wonder how he was going to fill his days.

I know how he feels. I didn’t have to retire when I did at the end of April 2010. I was not yet 62, but having decided that my pension would keep us comfortably, Steph and I decided to return to the UK and begin a new life in retirement. My Director general, Bob Zeigler, did his best to persuade me sign another contract and stay on at IRRI until 65. But I felt there were other things I wanted to do, places to visit, and we would only be able to enjoy those if no longer tied to an 8 to 5 regime.

Nevertheless, it was still a shock to the system once we’d returned home. I did find myself, from time-to-time, at a loose end. However, on receiving that recent email, I got to wondering what I had done over the past six years, how I’d filled my time. And once I compiled my list, I’m both surprised—and impressed—with my energy and activities.

So here goes:

  • I initially took up swimming on a daily basis, but once the local council reinstated swimming and parking fees for pensioners within about four months, I felt I could no longer justify such an expense of about £7 daily. So I took up walking, as much on a daily basis as energy and weather permitted, and really got to explore my town and surrounding countryside. I must have walked somewhere between 2000 and 3000 miles.
  • The house was in need of some TLC, so in the first year back (2010) I set about decorating most of the inside. There’s still one small bedroom (now Steph’s work room and full of all her things) and the kitchen to complete. I’m inclined now to find a professional decorator for that, and in any case, the kitchen could do with a complete refurbishment after 30+ years.
  • I oversaw the complete refurbishment of two bathrooms and a downstairs toilet/washroom (in late 2010), the erection of a new garden fence (in 2014), and the re-roofing of the house, the remodelling of our drive, and the installation of an electric garage door (all in 2015).
  • Professionally, I rejoined the editorial board of the science journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution published by Springer, and have regularly reviewed manuscripts over the past three years.
  • PGRCCI co-edited (as lead editor) a 16 chapter book—Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change—published in 2014 by CABI, and also contributing one of the chapters.
  • In 2010 and 2014, I organised (as Chair of the Scientific Committee) the major science conferences at two international rice congresses in Hanoi, Vietnam (IRC2010) and Bangkok, Thailand (IRC2014), each attended by more than 1000 participants.
  • I also undertook two short consultancies (a week each) for the CGIAR through IRRI, contributing to the development of a common financial and administrative online tool called One Corporate System or OCS. This took me to Malaysia and the Philippines in 2012 or 2013. I don’t remember the exact dates. My involvement was curtailed as I rather spoke my mind when I saw that things were going awry, and my perspectives were not particularly appreciated. But I could see some pitfalls that the project managers were not willing to recognise. As far as I know there are still some challenges for the full implementation of the system.
  • Since March 2016 I have been leading the team for the evaluation of the CGIAR program for Maintaining and Sustaining Crop Collections (also known as the Genebanks CRP), commissioned by the CGIAR’s Independent Evaluation Arrangement in Rome. This evaluation will involve me until early 2017. In fact we have only really just begun. Even so, the evaluation has already taken me to Bonn, Germany at the end of April, to Montpellier in the south of France in mid-May, and to Rome, Italy just two weeks ago. I’m scheduled to make a 12-day trip to three CGIAR centers in Peru, Colombia, and Mexico at the end of July, to two more in Kenya and Ethiopia in October, before returning to Rome for a week in mid-November to draft a report.
  • I began this blog, A Balanced Diet, in February 2012, and have now posted 308 stories comprising, I guess, at least 300,000 words, probably more.
  • We became members of the National Trust in 2011, and English Heritage last year. We must have visited more than 40 properties, some for a second or even third time. Descriptions of these visits are one of the staples of this blog. I think we have visited most of those within a 50 mile radius from home, some a little further afield, and we have now picked the low-hanging fruit. Time to think about some trips where we book ourselves into a bed and breakfast for a couple of nights much further away.
  • Besides my consultancy travel to Vietnam (twice), Bangkok (three times) and the Philippines (at least half a dozen times), we have travelled to the USA each year since 2010, and will be there again for three weeks from early September. This is of course to visit our elder daughter Hannah and her family in Minnesota. But each year (apart from 2010) we have also made a trip to explore other regions of the country:
    • in May 2011, we had a spectacular road trip through Arizona and New Mexico;
    • we headed north along Lake Superior on the Minnesota Riviera in May 2012;

Grand Canyon album

04-20130523 131 Chelsea Flower Show

  • Music is very important to me, so hardly a day goes by without something being played on my iPod (connected to my sound system) or on CD. I have catholic tastes in music, just depending on my mood.
  • On 23 May 2010, I went to my second rock concert to hear Mark Knopfler and his band play at the LG Arena in Birmingham during his Get Lucky Tour. A great evening. (I’d been to my first concert in 2008 [?] in St Paul, Minnesota, to see the great Fleetwood Mac).
  • History books have been my main reading material, and I am a regular visitor the Bromsgrove’s public library. Since my accident last January I haven’t been able to get about as much so have delved more into books I bought in the UK in past years, those given me for Christmas, or the novels of Anthony Trollope (his Barsetshire chronicles) that I haven’t picked up for more than 30 years, but which I am thoroughly enjoying once again.
  • Yes, my accident in January certainly curtailed my mobility, but at least I was able to spend more time reading or working on this blog.
  • In February 2012 we visited Buckingham Palace where I was invested with the Order of the British Empire (Officer or OBE) in a ceremony presided by HRH The Prince of Wales. An unbelievable experience.
  • Philippa (our younger daughter, pictured with Steph and me at Buckingham Palace above) married Andi in New York in October 2010, and was awarded her PhD in psychology from Northumbria University in December.
  • But perhaps the most important happenings in the past six years have been the births of my four grandchildren: Callum Andrew (in August 2010), Elvis Dexter (in September 2011), Zoë Isabel (in May 2012), and Felix Sylvester (in September 2013). We only get to see Callum and Zoë once a year. Elvis and Felix live in Newcastle upon Tyne so we see them several times a year either when we travel the 250 miles northeast, or they come down to Worcestershire. But next weekend (2 July), Hannah and Michael, Callum and Zoë fly over here for two weeks holiday. And we are meeting up with Phil and Andi, Elvis and Felix in the New Forest where we have rented a holiday home. It will the first time we will have all been together, and the first time that the four cousins will meet each other.

So, there you have it. Quite busy, and I don’t intend to slow down if I can help it.

A triple century . . .

300_tl copy

Yes, this is my 300th blog post! I can hardly believe it. What started, rather tentatively in September 2011 (when I first tried my hand at blogging on WordPress), has become a regular pastime for me.

I posted my first public post on 1 February 2012—all about a visit we’d made in 2008 to a pumping station on the Kennet and Avon Canal. And from that modest beginning, my blog A Balanced Diet has grown quite significantly. Maybe it’s rather self-indulgent, but I’ve written this blog for my own pleasure. However, it’s also quite gratifying to know that so many folks around the world have also found interesting some of what I write about.

Visitors to my blog have grown over the past four years, and there are few countries that are not represented, as this slide show illustrates year by year.

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And, to date there have been almost 88,000 views.

views and visitors

Popular topics include genetic resources (and especially one post about potatoes in the Andes), various travels around the world, and our visits to National Trust properties.

But also popular are my two blogs about the investiture I attended at Buckingham Palace at the end of February 2012, and what to wear to an investiture. I think other honorees have faced the same dilemma I did. Another popular post, about cricket, must reflect the popularity of the sport and the various formats played around the world. Last year one of the most read posts was the obituary I wrote for my friend and former colleague, Professor Trevor Williams.

It’s strange how an idea will suddenly come to me, and then I can see how a blog post might be written. It could be hearing a piece of music, reading a book, or seeing something on television.

I hope you will continue to enjoy my random musings as much as I enjoy putting them together. Finding additional information from resources like Wikipedia (and yes, I have made a subscription to support that) and YouTube make my task easier. There’s often no need to go into great detail as there are already better resources out in the ether. I’ve uploaded more than 6000 images! I must have written more than 300,000 words over the past four years, maybe more. Well, as long as the ol’ neurons keep on being fired up, I’ll continue to blog.

Do keep coming back.



Through hard work, great things are achieved

BirminghamUniversityCrestPer Ardua Ad Alta

That’s the motto of The University of Birmingham, and ‘these sentiments sum up the spirit of Birmingham and illustrate the attitude of the people who have shaped both the city and the University.’

Almost 50 years ago, I had no inkling that I would have more than half a lifetime’s association with this university. Receiving its royal charter in 1900 (although the university was a successor to several institutions founded in the 19th century as early as 1828), Birmingham is the archetypal ‘redbrick university‘, located on its own campus in Edgbaston, about 3 miles southwest of Birmingham city center.

First encounter in 1967

My first visit to the university was in May or June 1967—to sit an exam. Biology was one of the four subjects (with Geography, English Literature, and General Studies) I was studying for my Joint Matriculation Board Advanced Level high school certificate (essentially the university entrance requirement) here in the UK. We were only four or five biology students at my high school, St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent (motto: Fideliter et Fortiter).

Now, I don’t remember (maybe I never knew) whether we were too few in number to sit our biology practical exam at the school, or all students everywhere had to attend an examination venue, but we set off by train from Stoke to Birmingham, and ended up at the School of Biological Sciences building. It was a new building then, and the (federal) School had only recently been formed from the four departments of Botany, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Genetics, and Microbiology.

Just before 2 pm, the five of us—and about 100 other students—trooped into the main laboratory (that I subsequently came to know as the First Year Lab) on the second floor. Little did I know that just over three years later I’d be joining the Department of Botany as a graduate student, nor that 14 years later in 1981 I would join the faculty as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Nothing could have been further from my mind as I settled down to tackle a dissection of the vascular system of a rat, and the morphology of a gorse flower, among other tasks to attempt.

Birmingham was not on the list of universities to which I had applied in December 1966. I’d chosen King’s College, London (geography), Aberystwyth (zoology and geography), Southampton (botany and geography), York (biology), Queen Mary College, London (general biological sciences), and Newcastle (botany and geography). In the end, I chose Southampton, and spent three very happy if not entirely fruitful years there.

Entering the postgraduate world

Jack Hawkes

Jack Hawkes

The next time I visited Birmingham was in February 1970. I had applied to join the recently-founded postgraduate MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I was interviewed by Course Director and Head of the Department of Botany, Professor JG Hawkes and Senior Lecturer and plant ecologist, Dr Denis Wilkins.

Despite the grilling from both of  them, I must have made an impression because I was offered a place for the following September. The only problem: no support grant. Although Hawkes had applied for recognition by one of the research councils to provide postgraduate studentships, nothing had materialized when I applied (although he was successful the following year, and for many years afterwards providing studentships to British students). So, after graduation from Southampton in July 1970 I was on tenterhooks all summer as I tried to sort out a financial solution to attend the course. Finally, around mid-August, I had a phone call from Hawkes telling me that the university would provide a small support grant. It was only £380 for the whole year, to cover all my living expenses including rent. That’s the equivalent of about £5600 today. The university would pay my fees.

All set then. I found very comfortable bed-sit accommodation a couple of miles from the university, and turned up at the department in early September to begin my course, joining four other students (from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela). It was during this one year course that I really learned how to study, and apart from my weekly Morris dancing night, I had few other distractions. It was study, study, study: and it paid off. The rest is history. I graduated in September 1971, by which time I’d been offered a one-year position at the newly-founded International Potato CenterCIP logo (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and I was all set for a career (I hoped) in the world of genetic resources and conservation. As it turned out, my travel to South America was delayed by more than a year during which time I registered for and commenced a PhD study on potatoes, finally landing in Lima in January 1973 and beginning a career in international agricultural research that lasted, on and off, until my retirement in 2010. I carried out most of my PhD research in Peru, and submitted my thesis in October 1975.

Jack Hawkes and me discussing landrace varieties of potatoes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974.

Graduation December 1975. L to R: Jack Hawkes (who co-supervised my PhD), me, and Trevor Williams (who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources). Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation.

Then I returned to Lima, spending another five years with CIP in Costa Rica carrying out research on bacterial diseases of potatoes among other things.

I should add that during the academic year 1971-72, a young woman, Stephanie Tribble, joined the MSc course. A few months later we became an ‘item’.

Steph’s MSc graduation at the University of Birmingham in December 1972, just weeks before I flew to South America and join the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.

After graduation, she joined the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh, but joined me in Lima in July 1973. We married there in October, and she also had a position with CIP for the years we remained in Lima.

A faculty position
On 1 April 1981 I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology.

Richard Sawyer

By mid-1980, after almost five years in Costa Rica, I felt that I had achieved as much as I could there, and asked my Director General in Lima, Dr Richard Sawyer, for a transfer to a new position. In November, we moved back to Lima, and I was expecting to be posted either to Brazil or possibly to the Philippines. In the meantime, I had been alerted to a recently-established lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham, and had been encouraged to apply¹. With encouragement from Richard Sawyer², and having been invited for interview, I made the trek back to the UK from Lima towards the end of January 1981. The interview process then was very different from what might be expected nowadays. No departmental seminar. Just a grilling from a panel chaired by the late Professor John Jinks, FRS, Dean of the Faculty of Science and head of the Department of Genetics. There were three staff from Plant Biology (Hawkes, Dennis Wilkins, and Brian Ford-Lloyd), and the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Deputy Dean, Professor Derek Walker.

We were three candidates. Each interview lasted about 45 minutes, and we all had to wait outside the interview room to learn who would be selected. I was interviewed last. Joining the other two candidates afterwards, we sat side-by-side, hardly exchanging a word between us, nervously waiting for one of us to be called back in to meet the panel. I was the lucky one. I was offered the position, accepted immediately, and a couple of days later flew back to Lima to break the news and make plans to start a new life with Steph and our daughter Hannah (then almost three) in Birmingham.

Over the 10 years I spent at Birmingham I never had the worry (or challenge) of teaching any First Year Course – thank goodness. But I did contribute a small module on agricultural systems to the Second Year common course (and became the Second Year Chair in the School of Biological Sciences), as well as sharing teaching of flowering plant taxonomy to plant biology stream students mtj-and-bfl-book-launchin the Second Year. With my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (with whom I’ve published three books on genetic resources) I developed a Third Year module on genetic resources that seems to have been well-received (from some subsequent feedback I’ve received). I also contributed to a plant pathology module for Third Year students. But the bulk of my teaching was to MSc students on the graduate course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources – the very course I’d attended a decade earlier. My main focus was crop evolution, germplasm collecting, and agricultural systems, among others. And of course there was supervision of PhD and MSc student research projects.

One of the responsibilities I enjoyed was tutoring undergraduate students, and always had an open door if they needed to see me. It quite shocked me in the late 1990s when my elder daughter, then a student at Swansea University, told me that her tutors had very limited and defined access hours for students. Of course you can’t be on call all day, every day, but you have to be there if a student really need to see you. And my tutees knew that if my office door was open (as it mostly was) they were free to come in and see me.

Once the four departments of the School of Biological Sciences merged into a single department in 1988, I aligned myself with and joined the Plant Genetics Group, and found a better role for myself. I also joined and became Deputy Chair of a cross-disciplinary group called Environmental Research Management (ERM) whose aim was to promote the strength of environment-related research across the university. Through ERM I became acquainted with Professor Martin Parry, and together with Brian Ford-Lloyd we published a book on genetic resources and climate change in 1990, and another in 2014 after we had retired.

Moving on
Even though the prospect of promotion to Senior Lecturer was quite good (by 1989 I’d actually moved on to the Senior Lecturer pay scale), I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with university life by that time. Margaret Thatcher and her government had consistently assaulted the higher education sector, and in any case I couldn’t see things getting any better for some years to come. In this I was unfortunately proved correct. In September 1990 a circular dropped into my post, advertising a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This was for a germplasm specialist and first head of the Genetic Resources Center. So I applied, was interviewed in January 1991, and accepted the position with a view to joining the institute from 1 July. They actually wanted me to start on 1 April. But as I explained—and IRRI Management accepted—I had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill at the university. In February I began to teach my third year module on genetic resources for the last time, and set the exams for all students to take in May and June. Once the marking and assessments had been completed, I was free to leave.

Friday 28 June was my last day, ending with a small farewell party in the School. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. And, as they say, the rest is history. I never looked back. But now, retirement is sweet, as are my memories.

¹ Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 and, recognizing that his departure would leave a big hole in the MSc teaching, the university approved the recruitment of a lecturer in plant genetic resources (with a focus on crop evolution, flowering plant taxonomy, and the like) essentially covering those areas where Jack had contributed.
² Dick Sawyer told me that applying for the Birmingham position was the right thing to do at that stage of my career. However, the day before I traveled to the UK he called me to his office to wish me well, and to let me know whichever way the interview went, he would have a new five-year contract waiting on his desk for me on my return. From my point of view (and I hope CIP’s) it was a win-win situation. Thus I left for the interview at Birmingham full of confidence.


Once upon a time in Barsetshire

Anthony Trollope

The novels of 19th century writer Anthony Trollope are not an easy read. Indeed, ‘challenging’ might be a better description. It’s not the tales themselves that’s the difficulty, but Trollope’s style and literary techniques¹ that are no longer fashionable. Yet, as I have found with great pleasure over several decades, they are worth the effort.

I first became acquainted with the works of  Anthony Trollope in 1976. Steph and I were doing a weekly shop in San José, Costa Rica. We had relocated there in early April to establish a research program on breeding heat- and disease-resistant potatoes in Turrialba for the International Potato Center (CIP).

Having spent an hour at one of San José’s better supermarkets, we decided to investigate The English Bookshop (I think that was its name) in one of the side streets near the city center and see what literary delights it had to offer.

The shelves were stacked with all the current best sellers: crime, thrillers, a modicum of erotica. None of them were cheap, however. And once I’ve bought a book, I never like to discard them. I just didn’t think that much of what was on offer deserved a place on my bookshelf, not at those prices – whether or not that’s a rather arrogant attitude towards the popular fiction of the 1970s.

As it happened, the wife of a colleague from Turrialba was in the bookshop at the same time. Mary Boynton, a retired professor of English Literature at Cornell University had accompanied her husband Damon Boynton, a retired professor of pomology at Cornell on a short term consultancy at CATIE, the institute to which I had also been seconded. Anyway, as I was browsing the shelves, I asked Mary if she could recommend any of the novels spread out before us.

Why don’t you try these‘, she suggested, pointing at a group of books by Anthony Trollope. These were the six Palliser novels², tales of politics, preferment, aristocratic intrigue, the Irish question. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound (well, several £££ in this case) and I bought the first in the series, hoping that if I did enjoy it, the others would still be available on a later visit. However, I didn’t anticipate there would be much of a market for Trollope in 1970s Costa Rica.

Alan Rickman

And enjoy them I did. The remaining Palliser novels found a home in my library, as did Trollope’s The Chronicles of Barsetshire³, another six books recounting the lives of the great and good, the Church, and the ‘lower and artisan classes’ in the fictitious counties of West and East Barsetshire; and linked to the Palliser novels through at least one character in common: the Duke of Omnium (bachelor uncle to Plantagenet Palliser). Several of the novels are centred around the ecclesiastical community of Barchester. So it was a delight, after we returned to the UK, in 1981 that the BBC broadcast an adaptation (The Barchester Chronicles) of the first two of these novels (The Warden, Barchester Towers) and starring a relative newcomer to our screens, the late lamented (and young) Alan Rickman as the Reverend Obadiah Slope, the bishop’s chaplain (here with the late Donald Pleasance as the Rev. Septimus Harding – the Warden).

The Palliser novels were adapted for television (in 26 episodes) in 1974 by Simon Raven and have recently been rebroadcast on daytime television. The Pallisers starred Philip Latham as Plantagenet Palliser and Susan Hampshire as his vibrant and wealthy wife Lady Glencora M’Cluskie. Today, the production seems so dated compared to recent offerings.

Dr. Thorne on TV
In the past month, an adaptation of the third of the Barchester novels, Dr. Thorne, has been broadcast on ITV (one of the UK’s commercial channels) with all the drawbacks of commercial breaks every ten to fifteen minutes. Adapted for television by Julian Fellowes—the creator and writer of Downton Abbeythis adaptation of Dr. Thorne suffered from Fellowes’ inability to write a scene lasting more than 30 seconds (I’ve never been a fan of Downton Abbey). I exaggerate of course. But the narrative moved swiftly on from one set piece to another. On the whole, the first two episodes were fine, but the third was a complete let-down. Very wooden. But not everyone agrees.

Oh for the more leisurely (and commercial-free) pace of a BBC production. The celebrated writer Andrew Davies has adapted to many of the great works of literature for the small screen, including Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in 1995, and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy earlier this year.

However, the locations chosen for filming Dr. Thorne, the costumes, and the whole look and feel of the production were outstanding. But the cast of characters as dramatised by Julian Fellowes were generally one dimensional, except for the wonderful Ian McShane as the nouveau riche railway baron, Sir Roger Scatcherd. And Rebecca Front as Lady Arabella Gresham was another joy to watch. The character of Dr. Thorne was played by Tom Hollander.

In the book itself, Dr. Thorne is obviously the central character, a sensitive yet strong character. I’m not convinced this was captured as satisfactorily on screen. Maybe it was the writing as Hollander’s performance per se was also very good. As it happened that Tom Hollander was appearing at the same hour (it started a couple of weeks earlier) in another production on the BBC, The Night Manager (adapted from a John Le Carré novel), playing a homosexual, psychopathic factotum. Two opposite characters could hardly be dreamed up, and unintentionally might have prejudiced my take on Hollander’s Dr. Thorne.

Dr. Thorne was broadcast over three Sundays at 9 pm. Given how commercial breaks can, and do, disrupt the narrative, I wonder if adaptations of this type are better suited to the commercial-free environment of the BBC, and portrayed at a slower pace over more episodes. Even two episodes, each 90 minutes with no breaks, would lend themselves perhaps to a more satisfactory and enjoyable experience.

However, having been left somewhat dissatisfied with the TV production, I decided to retrieve Dr. Thorne from my library. I’m now more than half way through. It’s just as enjoyable today as when I first tackled it almost 40 years when I found a copy in a secondhand bookshop in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex—a reprint from 1915! I think it’s time to immerse myself once again in the world of the Pallisers, which should keep me occupied for a few months more.

¹ For example, even as the narrative is romping along, Trollope will call a halt and, as though someone quite disconnected from the story, begin a commentary on the events. He also uses an interesting technique of addressing the reader from time-to-time, seeking as it were a response on what is happening and what this character or that should do. It’s rather like talking to camera as a kind of narrative, employed quite successfully by comedienne Miranda Hart in her series Miranda. Even though she might be in the middle of a sketch, the narrative might  stop, and she talks direct to camera, to the audience, to great effect.

² Can You Forgive Her? (1864); Phineas Finn (1869); The Eustace Diamonds (1873); Phineas Redux (1874); The Prime Minister (1876); The Duke’s Children (1879)

³ The Warden (1855); Barchester Towers (1857); Doctor Thorne (1858); Framley Parsonage (1861); The Small House at Allington (1864); The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)

Nature abhors a vacuum . . .

PACIFIC_Royal.inddI’m thoroughly enjoying Simon Winchester’s Pacific – the Ocean of the Future (published in 2015 by William Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-755075-3), which I received for Christmas 2015. I already mentioned it in a recent post.

With a Prologue (The lonely sea and the sky), an author’s note (On carbon), and an epilogue (The call of the running tide), the chapters are ten essays on a range of topics about the Pacific Ocean, its geography, politics, and history since 1 January 1950 (Before Present):

  • Chapter 1: The great thermonuclear sea (all about the series of atomic bomb test at many locations in the Pacific in the 1950s)
  • Chapter 2: Mr Ibuka’s radio revolution (Sony and the transistor revolution)
  • Chapter 3: The ecstasies of wave riding (the rise of surfing culture, from Hawaii to California)
  • Chapter 4: A dire and dangerous irritation (North Korea)
  • Chapter 5: Farewell, all my friends and foes (the end of colonialism)
  • Chapter 6: Echoes of distant thunder (the Pacific and world weather)
  • Chapter 7: How goes the lucky country? (Australia)
  • Chapter 8: The fires in the deep (deep ocean exploration)
  • Chapter 9: A fragile and uncertain sea (climate change and other environmental challenges)
  • Chapter 10: Of masters and commanders (the emergence/resurgence of China)

It was Chapter 5 on the end of colonialism that fired the neurons in my brain, resurrecting several memories from the deep recesses of my mind. It began with an account of the Cunard ocean liner, RMS Queen Elizabeth and her demise after catching fire (in what appears to have been a deliberate act of sabotage) in Hong Kong harbor. The head of the company that had bought the QE, Tung Chee Hwa, became the first Chinese-appointed chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region after the Union Jack was lowered on 30 June 1997 and British rule came to an end.

The essay in Chapter 6 described how the Pacific Ocean influences weather systems right across the globe. Pacific Ocean weather is something in both its glory and at its most ferocious I came to appreciate and experience during my 19 years in the Philippines.

But it was the tenth essay, about the geopolitics of the South China Sea, that made me sit up and really take notice. Hardly a week goes by without some report in the media about the territorial claims to the islands of and expansion into the South China Sea by the People’s Republic of China. Absurdly (but not obviously from a Chinese perspective) China has laid claim to almost all the South China Sea, riding roughshod over the legitimate (and, it has to be said, the conflicting claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia). But even a cursory glance at a map of the South China Sea shows just how outrageous China’s claims and actions are.


China has even taken to building outposts on a number of islands, reefs and atolls, obviously destined to become military bases with sophisticated defences and airfields to take the biggest planes.


Chinese claims
While China’s claims to the South China Sea stretch back to the end of the Second World War, it’s only in the past 25 years that this regional expansion has increased, and both the civil and military mobilized to achieve its aims. For the first time in 2006, evidence of China’s blue water navy aspirations and expanding naval capabilities was seen when a Chinese submarine sailed unnoticed within a few miles of a US carrier fleet. Over the years there have been a number of close encounters of the military kind. So far, both countries have managed to keep a lid on these confrontations escalating into a ‘shooting war’. But for how long?

Now, until I read Winchester’s account in Chapter 10, I had not put two and two together, even though I lived in the Philippines for almost two decades. Two events—one natural, one political—occurred in 1991, and subsequent analysis allows me to ask one of the important ‘What ifs’ of Southeast Asia history. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of the events of that year. Part of this will not make particularly comfortable reading for many Filipinos, I fear. Nevertheless it’s an interesting perspective on what events encouraged the Chinese to assert themselves as they have done, much to the chagrin of her neighbours. Not that China is concerned it seems, about their counter claims, or that much of the area they claim as sovereign territory is viewed as international waters or airspace. A UN international tribunal in The Hague, to which the Philippines had taken its case, ruled against China. But that will make no difference. China does not recognize the tribunal. Economic prowess and military might are what count.

The events of 1991
In 1991, Mt Pinatubo awoke from its slumber of many centuries, and erupted on 15 June in a climactic explosion, depositing ash over a huge area. This dire situation was further exacerbated because Typhoon Yunya (Diding in the Philippines) hit Luzon on precisely the same day. Within spitting distance of Pinatubo were located two of the US’s most important overseas military bases: Clark Field, nestling at the foot of the volcano near Angeles City, and Subic Bay, home to the US Seventh Fleet, and one of the most important naval facilities that the US had access to anywhere. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of different events of that year.

Mt Pinatubo (from Clark Air Base) erupting on 12 June 1991, three days before the climactic eruption that led to the abandonment of the airbase in November that year.

At Clark it became clear within a day or two of the eruption, and covered in feet of volcanic ash, that the airbase would have to be abandoned. Aircraft had been flown out beforehand and personnel successfully evacuated to Subic. In November 1991 the US Air Force closed Clark¹.

At the end of 1991 there was perhaps an even more event, political this time, that has perhaps contributed more to the present South China Sea situation than the Pinatubo eruption ever did. In an increasingly nationalistic Senate, the future of an American presence in the Philippines was being debated. The Senate rejected a treaty that would have extended use of Subic Bay because of concerns over the presence of nuclear weapons (which the US would not reveal). Finally at the end of December 1991, the then president Cory Aquino informed the US government that US forces would have to leave the Philippines by the end of 1992. The US Navy pulled out in November 1992.

And into the vacuum left by the US departure cleverly stepped the Chinese, sensing the opportunity to fulfill their long-standing regional geopolitical ambitions. The rest is history; the Chinese are now well and truly entrenched in the South China Sea, and will not be easily budged. There is, however, another interesting twist to the story. In January 2016, the Philippines Supreme Court approved the return of US troops to bases in the Philippines, as a counter to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. What goes around comes around?

What if?
What if Pinatubo had never blown her top on that fateful June day in 1991? What if the US had been more forthcoming about the status of nuclear weapons during the finely balanced base renewal negotiations in 1991? What if the Philippines Senate had not openly expressed its rejection of the treaty in a display of anti-colonialism? What if the US navy had never left?

Would the Chinese have been off the mark with such alacrity, developing its own blue water navy, and (with contempt, many would say) revealing its true regional hegemonic ambitions? Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. The Chinese have been only too happy to fill the military vacuum.

Let us hope that the war of words being fought over the South China Sea never evolves into a ‘hot war’. Notwithstanding Chinese intransigence and, it has to be said, overt hostility at times, it may depend in some degree on who occupies the White House after next November’s presidential election in the US. The jingoistic foreign policy rhetoric of a couple of the Republican candidates does not give me much cause for optimism.

¹ In the intervening years, it should be noted, Clark has been refurbished and reopened as Clark International Airport. Were it closer to Manila, and connected with better transport links, Clark could well have become Manila’s principal airport, relieving congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, close-by Manila’s business district of Makati.