A congregation of corvids

Collective nouns are wonderful.

Why, for example, would a group of carrion crows be known as a murder of crows? Then there’s a parliament of rooks, a mischief of magpies, and a train of jackdaws. Often there is more than one collective name, depending on local tradition and usage.

Isn’t it delightful? Just goes to show how colourful the English language can be.

Well, here are the four culprits, and three of them (magpie, carrion crow, and jackdaw) are becoming increasingly common—and noisy—in our suburban garden in northeast Worcestershire. Greedy magpies regularly visit our bird table; crows and jackdaws tend to shout at us from the surrounding roof tops.

Rooks have taken up residence in a small copse alongside the busy A38 by-pass less than a mile away.

Members of the crow family are large and quite striking birds, and rather intelligent. From time-to-time we see jays in the surrounding countryside. But as they are solitary compared to the other four already mentioned, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scold of jays. The jay is a really handsome bird.

Three other corvids, the raven (a conspiracy), chough (a chattering) and hooded crow ( a MacMurder perhaps, as they are found in Scotland) are much more restricted in their distributions in the UK. I’ve only seen them on a few occasions. Once seen, the chough is never to be forgotten, with its shiny black plumage, reddish-orange curved beak, and legs and feet of the same colour.

So, this morning when I went outside to put some last minute pieces of rubbish in the bin before collection, there was this solitary crow letting rip at the top of its voice, giving me chapter and verse. And that got me thinking about how common they have become, but also the lovely collective nouns we employ to describe them.

Then, being an active member of the blogging fraternity, I did wonder what a collective noun might be. I came across a click of bloggers in one blog; here is a more extensive list of suggestions. Which one would you choose?

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

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.

30423318505_1b5fdb9c2d_z

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].

IR Varieties_TOC.indd

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
[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).

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

narcissist-acts

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.

c3yqndivcaareg_

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!