Earning a crust in the 1960s, part-time

It was not uncommon during the 1960s (when I was a teenager) for many young people to have a part-time job to earn some pocket-money, me included. From 1964 for almost three years I worked on Saturdays at a local garage in Leek, my hometown in north Staffordshire. Peppers Garage, on High Street, next to the Grand Cinema. The Grand was one of three at that time, the others being the Palace a little further down the same street on the corner with Salisbury Street (and a converted skating rink), and the Majestic across town on Union Street, I believe—a real ‘flea pit’. How times change. All the cinemas have disappeared, and from I saw today on Google Street View, there is now a vacant lot where the garage once stood.

The vacant lot where Peppers of Leek once stood. The new building to the right occupies the site of the former Grand Cinema.

I ‘inherited’ this Saturday job from my elder brother Ed in the autumn of 1964 (maybe a little earlier) when he went to university at the London School of Economics. I had to get to work around 08:30, if not earlier, and stayed there until the garage closed around 17:30 or thereabouts. For this I was paid the princely sum of £0 15s 0d (that’s ‘old money’, pre-decimalization). In ‘new money’ that’s equivalent today to £0.75, but of course that belies the real equivalency of about £13.33. Given that the current minimum hourly wage for under-18s is £4.05, I was paid about £1.66 an hour. Child exploitation!

But the pocket-money came in handy. I bought myself a record player, and a pair of binoculars (I was a keen bird-watcher then) among other things. It gave me a sense of achievement to save this money and spend it on things I really wanted, but my parents couldn’t afford.

Looking back, I can’t say it was a hard job. They assigned me to the car parts sales section, and also to attend the gasoline (petrol) pumps (no self-service in those days). All the vets from a local practice would come by on a Saturday, fill up their vehicles, and sign for what they had taken. We had a select group of customers who signed for their gasoline and were billed monthly.

Peppers sold car models made by the British Motor Corporation (Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley). Of course nothing was computerised in those days, so when someone came in looking for a particular part, we had to work our way through voluminous parts manuals (once we’d identified what the part was actually for), and then see if we had it in stock. There was an old geezer working at Pepper’s who must have been there for years by the name of Bill Wragg. He was a real rough diamond, but generous, who had an extremely colourful vocabulary. Maybe I learned to swear effectively from Bill and others working at Peppers.

Once I’d turned 17 and had a full driving licence, I was allowed to move cars around, and even collect new models from a distributor based in the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent) some 10 miles to the west. These jaunts took me out of the garage (and the tedium) for several hours, and I looked forward to these occasional assignments, and learning to drive different cars.

Being the junior, so-to-speak, I also had to make the twice-daily brew of tea: plentiful, hot, and very sweet! But once I went off to university if October 1967 I left all this behind me.

But being a budding car parts salesman was not my only venture into part-time employment. In those days, during the Christmas rush (from about 15 December onwards) the GPO (as it was then known, today the Post Office) took on extra temporary staff to take care of the huge increase in mail. Many of these temporary staff were from local schools. I was among them, and did my Christmas mail shifts for about four years from when I went into the Sixth Form at high school in 1965 until the Christmas of my second year at Southampton University in 1968. What was remarkable, looking back on it, was that we were actually given permission to take a few days off from school to help with the Christmas mail. It wouldn’t be allowed today. The first year, all I did was deliver mail that others had sorted. The second year I was assigned only to sorting, keeping nice and warm inside while others braved the winter weather. In the third and fourth years I was assigned my own ‘walk’, and had to sort and deliver all the mail for a particular route in the town, carrying a very heavy bag of cards and packages on the handlebars of an old GPO bicycle. But it did mean I got many more hours of work.

After I had completed my pre-university exams in June 1967 (I can hardly imagine that the 50th anniversary is upon us; the Israeli-Arab Six Day War was fought and over while I was sitting my exams), I took a job with Adams Butter in Leek, as driver’s mate on large, refrigerated articulated trucks like the one below.

Adams Butter (now part of Ornua Foods) was a local company, a big employer in Leek that processed butter, repacked it and distributed it to outlets all over the country. I had to be at work very early, often around dawn to begin the day’s trip to deliver butter. The trucks carried about 25 tons of butter, packed in 28 lb boxes. All these had to be shifted by hand. We had a strict delivery route as the trucks had been loaded accordingly. Often it was a question of arriving at a supermarket, waiting around for some time until we could back into the off-loading bay, then 30 or more minutes of hard graft picking up the boxes and throwing them out of the back of the refrigerated compartment. Today everything is delivered on pallets, and fork-lift trucks take the pallets away. It was brute force in 1967. I suffered for the first few days, but once I’d learned how to pick up the boxes without hurting myself, and throwing them to the driver for stacking (or vice versa) I became a dab hand, and quite fit.

Once the truck had been unloaded at our last drop off, we then made our way to the nearest port to pick up a consignment of ‘raw’ frozen butter that had come in from the Irish Republic, Australia or New Zealand. This is what Adams would blend and redistribute. Mostly we went to Liverpool Docks, picking up our load from huge cold stores on the quay. Now these boxes, completely frozen, weighed 56 lb each, and rather difficult to man handle. Once again, it took some practice to safely lift and stack these boxes, and the dockers (known as longshoremen in the USA) didn’t hang about, and certainly didn’t make any allowances for a rookie like me. Three or four days into my work every muscle ached. I didn’t think I was going to be able to continue. But, you know, it was probably the fittest I ever was once I’d been working for a week or so.

I never knew from one day to the next who I would be partnered with. On my very first day, heading up the M6 motorway towing an empty flatbed trailer towards Liverpool Docks, the brakes caught fire and we had to abandon our trip and wait on the hard shoulder for several hours until rescued by mechanics with a replacement trailer. Some times we had deliveries much further afield, to the northeast in the Newcastle area, or even to Glasgow. These were usually three-day trips.

I made particular friends with one driver. I remember his name was Harold, but I can’t remember his family name. Sheldon, perhaps? I often worked with him, especially on the overnight trips. He was very widely read, and had a passion for archaeology. I remember one day out we made with his wife and young children to Wroxeter Roman City near Shrewsbury. Happy days.

I’ve only been to Liverpool once since 1967. That must have been around 2000 when I gave a lecture at the University of Liverpool. Liverpool has changed enormously over the past 50 years. It’s very much on the tourist map, particularly for its connections with The Beatles and the Liverpool Sound. And talking of The Beatles and the Beatles Story, I really must go back there and see for myself the large poster about skiffle near the entrance of the Beatles Story that features my brother Ed and me in the late 1950s.

Sammy Jackson visiting The Beatles Story several years back. Sammy is the son of my nephew Alex.

As of three weeks ago, it was still there among the exhibits, so my good friend Prof Brian Ford-Lloyd informed me. And it was Brian’s comments about his visit to Liverpool that got me thinking about doing the same, remembering about my visits to the city, and the other ideas that came to mind that I have related in this blog post. Funny how one little idea can cause so many others to resurface.

 

There’s beauty in numbers . . .

Now, what I want is, facts . . . Stick to the facts, sir!

Thus spoke businessman, MP, and school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ tenth novel, Hard Times, first published in 1854.

Increasingly however, especially on the right of the political spectrum, facts have become a debased currency. ‘Alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become an ‘alternative religion’, faith-based and not susceptible to the norms of scientific scrutiny. Fake data are also be used as a ‘weapon’.

I am a scientist. I deal with facts. Hypotheses, observations, numbers, data, analysis, patterns, interpretation, conclusions: that’s what science is all about.

There really is a beauty in numbers, my stock-in-trade for the past 40 years: describing the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives; understanding how they are adapted to different environments; how one type resists disease better than another; or how they can contribute genetically to breed higher-yielding varieties. The numbers are the building blocks, so to speak. Interpreting those blocks is another thing altogether.

Statistical analysis was part and parcel of my scientific toolbox. Actually, the application of statistics, since I do not have the mathematical skills to work my way through the various statistical methods from first principles. This is not surprising considering that I was very weak in mathematics during my high school years. Having passed the necessary examination, I intended to put maths to one side forever, but that was not to be since I’ve had to use statistics during my university education and throughout my career. And playing around with numbers, looking for patterns, and attempting to interpret those patterns was no longer a chore but something to look forward to.

So why my current obsession with numbers?

First of all, since Donald Trump took up residence in the White House (and during his campaign) numbers and ‘alternative facts’ featured prominently. Trump does not respect numbers. However, more of this later.

Second, I recently came across a scientific paper about waterlogging tolerance in lentils by a friend of mine, Willie Erskine, who is a professor at the University of Western Australia (although I first knew him through his work at ICARDA, a CGIAR center that originally had its headquarters in Aleppo, Syria). The paper was published last month in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Willie and his co-authors showed that lentil lines did not respond in the same way to different waterlogging regimes, and that waterlogging tolerance was a trait that could be selected for in lentil breeding.

A personal data experience
While out on my daily walk a couple of days later, I mulling over in my mind some ideas from that lentil paper, and it reminded me of an MSc dissertation I supervised at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s. My student, Shibin Cai, came from the Institute of Food Crops, Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China where he worked as a wheat scientist.

Cai was interested to evaluate how wheat varieties responded to waterlogging. So, having obtained several wheat lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, we designed a robust experiment to evaluate how plants grew with waterlogging that was precisely applied at different critical stages in the wheat plant’s life cycle: at germination, at booting, and at flowering, as far as I remember. I won’t describe the experiment in detail, suffice to say that we used a randomized complete block design with at least five replicates per variety per treatment and control (i.e. no waterlogging whatsoever). Waterlogging was achieved by placing pots inside a larger pot lined with a polythene bag and filled with water for a definite length of time. Cai carefully measured the rate of growth of the wheat plants, as well as the final yield of grains from each.

After which we had a large database of numbers. Observations. Data. Facts!

Applying appropriate statistical tests to the data, Cai clearly showed that the varieties did indeed respond differently to waterlogging, and we interpreted this to indicate genetic variation for this trait in wheat that could be exploited to improve wheat varieties for waterlogging-prone areas. I encouraged Cai to prepare a manuscript for publication. After all, I was confident with the quality of his research.

We submitted his manuscript to the well-known agricultural research journal Euphytica. After due process, the paper was rejected—not the first time this has happened to me I should add. But I was taken aback at the comments from one of the anonymous referees, who did not accept our results—the observations, the data—claiming that there was no evidence that waterlogging was a verifiable trait in wheat, and especially in the lines we had studied. Which flew in the face of the data we had presented. We hadn’t pulled the numbers like a rabbit out of a hat. I did then wonder whether the referee was a wheat expert from CIMMYT. Not wishing to be paranoid, of course, but was the referee biased? I never did get an opportunity to take another look at the manuscript to determine if it could be revised in any way. As I said, we were confident in the experimental approach, the data were solid, the analysis sound—and confirmed by one of my geneticist colleagues who had a much better grasp of statistics than either Cai or me. Result? The paper was never published, something I have regretted for many years.

So you can see that there were several elements to our work, as in much of science. We had a hypothesis about waterlogging tolerance in wheat. We could test this hypothesis by designing an experiment to measure the response of wheat to waterlogging. But then we had to interpret the results.

Now if we had measured just one plant per variety per treatment all we could have said is that these plants were different. It’s like measuring the height say of a single plant of two wheat varieties grown in different soils. All we can state is the height we measured. We can make no inference about any varietal differences or responses. For that we need several measurements—numbers, data—that allow us to state whether if any observed differences are ‘real’ or due to chance. That’s what we do all time in science. We want to know if what we measure is a true reflection of nature. It’s not possible to measure everything, so we use a sample, and then interpret the data using appropriate statistical analyses. But we have to be careful as this interesting article on the perils of statistical interpretation highlights.

Back to The Donald
One of the most important and current data relationships is based in climate science. And this brings me back to The Donald. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that relationship between increased CO2 levels and increases in global temperatures is the result of human activity. The positive relationship between the two sets of data is unequivocal. But does that mean a cause and effect relationship? The majority of scientists say yes; climate deniers do not. That makes the appointment of arch-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environment Protection Agency in the US so worrying.

Donald Trump does not like facts. He doesn’t like numbers either unless he can misappropriate them in his favor (such as the jobs or productivity data that clearly relate to the policies under Mr 44). He certainly did not like the lack of GOP numbers to pass his repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

He regularly dismisses the verifiable information in front of his eyes, preferring ‘alternative facts’ and often inflated numbers to boot, instead. Just remember his sensitivity and his absurd claims that the 20 January National Mall crowds were largest for any presidential inauguration. The photographic evidence does not support this Trumpian claim; maybe fantasy would be a better description.

Time magazine has just published an excellent article, Is Truth Dead? based on an interview with The Donald, and to back it up, Time also published a transcript of the interview. This not only proves what Mr 45 said, but once again demonstrates his complete lack of ability to string more than a couple of coherent words together. Just take a look for yourselves.

Part of Trump’s rhetoric (or slow death by Tweet) is often based on assertions that can be verified: the biggest, the longest, the most, etc. Things can measured accurately, the very thing he seems to abhor. His aim to Make America Great Again cannot be measured in the same way. What is great? Compared to what or when? It’s an interpretation which can be easily contradicted or at the very least debated.

That’s what so disconcerting about the Trump Administration. The USA is a scientific powerhouse, but for how much longer if the proposed agency budget cuts that The Donald has promised really bite (unless related to the military, of course). There’s an increasing and worrying disdain for science among Republican politicians (and here in the UK as well); the focus on climate change data is the prime expression of that right now.

 

When is an earworm not an earworm?

Not an earworm exactly, according to the strict definition, although music was involved.

Now, why I woke up in the early hours today thinking about a BBC television series that was first aired in 1962 and ran until 1971, I have no idea. But there it was, going round and round in my mind; and once I’d remembered the theme music, the worm had become quite active.

If you are in your late 60s (as I am) then you will have fond memories—probably—of the long running series, Dr Finlay’s Casebook set in the late 1920s about a doctors’ practice (pre-NHS) in the fictional Scottish town of Tannochbrae. Based on a novella Country Doctor by Scottish physician and author AJ Cronin, Dr Finlay’s Casebook ran to 191 episodes*, and starred, left to right, Scottish actors Andrew Cruickshank as senior partner Dr Cameron and Bill Simpson as Dr Finlay, with Barbara Mullen as the indomitable housekeeper Janet MacPherson (who was actually born in Massachusetts of Irish parents).

So why did I wake up thinking about this series? As I blogged recently, I’ve set myself the challenge of reading throughout 2017 all the novels by Charles Dickens. Since the beginning of the year I have completed David Copperfield, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities, and have just embarked upon Little Dorrit. Having particularly enjoyed Bleak House, my wife and decided to watch the acclaimed 2005 BBC adaptation on DVD; we watched Episode 14 (of 15) last night. Maybe it was this that got my mind going into overdrive: the idea of a remake or new adaptation of a [polular series (as the BBC has already done over two series of the popular 1975 series Poldark).

But why Dr Finlay’s Casebook? With the Tannochbrae theme whirring around my brain, I conjured up all manner of present-day adaptations. Who would play the lead roles, and what contemporary themes would run through the various episodes? Well, looming Scottish Independence seems a logical story line, Brexit even, as well as the challenges of the NHS today (almost pre-NHS in its delivery in some parts of the nation).

Lead actors**? Well, my nomination for Dr Cameron is ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or maybe ex-LibDem leader Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell, while SNP Leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would make an admirable housekeeper Janet. I already have someone in mind for Dr Snoddie (Finlay’s detractor and admirer of Janet, who was played by Eric Woodburn in the original series): Malcolm Rifkind!

But who to play Dr Finlay, an idealist striving for the best for his patients? Tony Blair? Alistair Darling? Definitely not Michael Gove! Any nominations?

Do all remakes work? Certainly not. Poldark 2015 has been highly acclaimed. But a remake of Dr Finlay that was so popular all those decades ago? Maybe not. Until I watched the clip below from an episode broadcast in 1964 I had forgotten just how well made and acted Dr Finlay’s Casebook was. There is a relaxed feeling to each scene, and a natural rapport between the actors, which just add to its apparent authenticity. And of course, more than a few wee drams!

Hopefully this blog post has now eliminated my Sunday morning earworm.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
* A sequel, Dr Finlay, set in the 1940s was broadcast by the commercial channel Scottish Television over four series and 27 episodes between 1993 and 1996. I was unaware of this until today when I started researching background information for this story.

** All images from Wikipedia

“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

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 . . .

47212bf119d17ee84106d4b745b2a091

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.