Mark making tools, paper, and a steady hand

Ask anyone to name a famous English composer and they’d probably mention Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) or, more probably, Sir Edward Elgar.

Elgar was born in June 1857 in a small cottage, The Firs, in the village of Lower Broadheath, a stone’s throw west of Worcester, and 20 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove. The cottage (formerly the Elgar Birthplace Museum) came into the care of the National Trust in 2016 following an agreement with the Elgar Foundation. Closed for a year for some refurbishment, and the addition of a tea-room at the existing Visitor Centre among other improvements, The Firs re-opened in September 2017.

As the weather forecast for Friday (yesterday) had looked promising from earlier in the week, Steph and I made plans for a day out. But where to go? Looking through the 2018 handbook I came across The Firs (which had not featured in the 2017 handbook for obvious reasons). And with the added attraction of a two-mile circular walk in Elgar country in the vicinity, this was just what the doctor ordered!

Our visit to The Firs was beyond my expectations and unbelievably moving, even bringing me to the point of tears as I watched the 15-20 minute film about Elgar in the Visitor Centre. Throughout our visit, but especially in ‘Elgar’s Study’, I really had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, and I can’t recall ever having had that reaction before.

Elgar’s parents William and Anne had seven children, although two died young.

William was a piano tuner, and held a warrant from Queen Adelaide (wife of William IV).

Although Elgar moved away to Worcester with his family at the age of two, he retained a life-long attachment to The Firs. At the bottom of the cottage garden (see map) there is a lovely life-size sculpture of Elgar sitting on a bench (by Jemma Pearson) gazing through a gap in the hedge towards the Malvern Hills that he loved so much. It was commissioned by the Elgar Foundation in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth.

Elgar’s daughter, Carice (born in 1890) was the inspiration, in 1935, to acquire The Firs as a memorial to her father.

Entrance to the house is by timed tickets. There’s obviously not a great deal of space inside to accommodate too many visitors at a time.

Inside the entrance porch was a small room with an iron range for heating water and cooking. Today, the National Trust has decorated the room with contemporary though not original-to-the-house items, including a piano tuner’s set of instruments.

On the ground floor, the Parlour (dedicated to Carice Elgar) has a lovely piano, possibly played by Elgar.

At the top of the stairs is a room the full width of the cottage (perhaps earlier divided into two rooms) where Elgar was born. Two other rooms and this one have displays of various musical instruments, his sporting and scientific interests, and other personal belongings such as watches.

Elgar was apparently a keen cyclist, and on one wall of the Visitor Centre there’s a mural of an exuberant cycling Elgar. We were told, although this may well only be anecdotal, that Elgar once cycled from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch his favorite football team Wolverhampton Wanderers play. A round trip of 100 miles!

Alice and Edward Elgar in 1890

Inside the Visitor Centre, an exhibition illustrates highlights from Elgar’s life and career. He married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889. Her parents disapproved of Elgar—a ‘jobbing musician’—and did not attend their wedding in the Brompton Oratory in London. I hadn’t realized until yesterday that Elgar was a Catholic.

Alice (who died in 1920) was his inspiration, and early on in their relationship recognized his genius. And that leads to the second point I didn’t know. Elgar received no formal musical training. It wasn’t until 1899, with the first performance of the Enigma Variations, that his growing reputation as a composer was sealed.

In ‘Elgar’s study’ there are original scores of some of his most famous works, as well as the desk at which he worked.

Alice used to prepare the paper on which Elgar composed. Apparently, specially printed paper with the staves was not available, and had to be drawn by hand using the five-pointed pen you can see in a couple of the photos above.

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the free‘. Famous words by Arthur C Benson put to music in Elgar’s 1901 Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, sung here by contralto Clara Butt.

A page from the original score of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’

Who hasn’t heard Land of Hope and Glory? It’s the theme accompanying high school and university graduations around the world. Our two daughters graduated from Manila International School in the Philippines in the 1990s, and it was used then.

Another large room in the Visitor Centre, the Carice Room, is used for concerts, and where we watched the film about Elgar. There was also a lovely exhibition yesterday of watercolors by Worcestershire artist David Birtwhistle.

After a spot of lunch—we even sat outside at one of the many picnic tables—we set off on our walk, which took just over an hour. The walk begins on a public bridleway just behind The Firs, and then crosses three fields sown with oilseed rape and winter barley. By the time we reached terra firma again at Bell Lane, it felt  as though we were carrying half of Worcestershire on our muddy boots.

And at this point I must come back to Vaughan Williams for a moment, because as we were walking across the barley field, and looking back towards Worcester Cathedral to the east, a skylark rose into the air in front of us, singing lustily throughout its ascent and as it glided slowly back to earth.

What a wonderful sight and sound, reminding me instantly of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending premiered in 1920, although originally written for violin and piano in 1914.

The staff and volunteers at The Firs were outstanding, and their friendliness and readiness to engage with us added to the enjoyment of our visit. As I said at the outset, we didn’t have any particular expectations when deciding to visit Elgar’s birthplace. I came away deeply affected by what I saw, heard, and learned, and I’m sure that the emotion will stay with me for many days to come. And, coincidentally, as I am finishing writing this post, while listening to Classic FM, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 has just been featured.

 

 

 

 

 

Fashion, so said Louis XIV, is the mirror of history

Amber Butchart (photo by Jo Duck – used with permission)

Just when you least expect it, a real gem of a television series comes along. You’re gathered in. Then you’re hooked!

And that was our experience with fashion historian Amber Butchart’s six part series, A Stitch In Time, recently screened on BBC4.

This is what Amber has to say about the series on her blog: Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, throughout A Stitch in Time I get to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore, while key garments are recreated using the original techniques.

She peers into the mirror and helps us to interpret the costume clues held within Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini portrait, the role of hand-me-downs among 18th century workers, the impact of cotton on British life, a flamboyant armorial piece which sits at odds with the allegedly brutal nature of its wearer and the impact a scandalously informal gown would have on an already unpopular queen.

What an eye-opener A Stitch in Time has been! And from what I’ve seen in various media, we are not alone in being enthralled by the series.

My wife Steph and I enjoy watching almost any history-related program, so tuned into the first episode on 3 January almost by default. We had no idea what to expect, and we’d never heard of Amber Butchart (herself a fashion icon) even though (as I’ve now discovered) she has broadcast regularly over the past four or five years on BBC radio.

To recreate the items of clothing, Amber relied on the talents and experience of historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila  and her team, Harriet Waterhouse and Hannah Marples. It was amazing to see how every item of clothing was hand stitched. Not a sewing machine is sight, nor an electric iron.

L to R: Harriet, Ninya, Amber, and Hannah

In each program Amber talked about a particular painting—and a tomb effigy in one program—and what each tells us about the person(s) portrayed, how their clothing speaks to us about their social status, and the society in which they lived. And then she enjoyed modeling each of the recreated costumes.

She also delved into other background issues that are part of the story, none perhaps more emotive than that of Dido Belle, born in 1761 the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave, who moved in the highest circles of English aristocracy since her great uncle was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. I was already familiar with her story having read the 2014 book that same year by Paula Byrne.

Choosing the topics
I asked Amber how she came to choose the six subjects for the series. She replied: I wanted to show a real range of clothing from history—not just womenswear and royalty. I also wanted to touch on stories that are harder to uncover, to show the difficulties that can be part of the process when looking at marginalised histories. So I chose the artworks for a mixture of these reasons—plus some which are more well known within fashion history, such as Marie Antoinette and Charles II.

Charles was the subject of the first program (depicted receiving a pineapple from his head gardener, in a painting from around 1667, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and “how he used fashion as propaganda with an outfit that foreshadowed the three piece suit”. From what appeared a rather drab suit of clothes in the painting, the completed reconstruction was extremely elegant, with its shot silk lining and black silk ‘bows’ on the trousers, shoulder and sleeves. The other fashion statement is the fantastic number of handmade buttons and their corresponding button-holes.The second program considered the famous Arnolfini portrait by Van Eyck from 1434, that hangs today in the National Gallery.

Once thought to portray a pregnant Mrs Arnolfini, wife of a wealthy merchant, this is no longer believed to be the case. She’s just holding up the rather large amount of cloth that went into making her dress—just because she could, a sign of the family’s wealth. The resulting recreation was stunning, and it was also interesting to watch how the green dye was made. Not for those of a weak olfactory constitution!

The ‘common man’ was the subject of the third program, depicted in a full-size portrait at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Portraits of working men are uncommon. Just take a visit to any National Trust property, as Steph and I do all year round, and there are a thousand and one portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery. Such statements of power and fashion!

But The Hedge Cutter at Broughton shows a working man wearing a hand-me-down leather coat, evidently worn by several  generations and generously patched. It’s dark and stained, tattered in places.

The coat expertly recreated by Ninya and her team from soft, pale leather was a delight to behold. Even more compelling were the sewing techniques they had to employ to join the expensive pieces of leather together.

The story of Dido Belle in Program 4, was particularly interesting. In the painting of Dido (with Lady Elizabeth Murray), on display at Scone Palace in Scotland, not all of her dress can be seen, so Ninya and her team had to interpret how it might have been made.

Calling upon all their knowledge and experience, they recreated a dress that they believe was close to the original. Ninya confirmed to me that Dido’s clothes were the biggest challenge to research, mainly because so much of them are obscured in the painting, and because very little survives in the way of informal dress. Loose, voluminous garments made from expensive silk are prime targets for being made over, cut and reused. As we said in the programme, we were very happy with the results, but there were definitely several possible answers for how this gown was actually cut and constructed!

The Black Prince, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and Amber took us to look at the prince’s gilt-bronze tomb effigy, which shows the item of clothing that was the focus of this episode. The prince is wearing a jupon, a close-fitting tunic worn over a suit of armor and bearing heraldic arms. Warriors wore such an item of clothing in battle so they could be recognized and serve as a rallying point for their troops.

What was particularly interesting about this program (5) is that the prince’s original jupon still exists although no longer on display. After 600 years it’s just too fragile. But after his death in 1376, the jupon was hung above the prince’s tomb and remained there for centuries. Now stored carefully away in a box at the cathedral, the jupon no longer displays its vibrant colors, and although there was perhaps less interpretation needed to reconstruct it, there were still some challenges. The principal one was how to sew the cotton protective wadding between the layers of linen as a backing and the red and blue velvet of the outer layer.

Nevertheless, the completed garment was the most exuberant of the series. As Ninya told me: I loved working on the Black Prince’s jupon. It was an incredibly time-consuming process but it was so rewarding seeing it emerge in all its brightly coloured, gold-embellished glory!

Apparently the gold embroidery alone took 900 hours to complete, stitched on to a linen backing, cut out, and then sewn on to the jupon. Stunning!

In the final programme, Amber explained the court reaction to the most unroyal-like muslin dress (chemise de la reine) worn by the unpopular Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in an infamous portrait painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Such was the uproar, that the artist had to paint another portrait in a more appropriate dress worthy of a French queen. Muslin was used for undergarments, not for royal portraits. Vigée Le Brun painted more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette.

The recreation was an elegant, free-flowing gown, but not (to our modern eyes) the scandalous display for which Marie Antoinette was censured. She would have worn this type of dress in informal settings such as her retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the Petit Trianon, surrounded by intimates. Underneath the dress Marie Antoinette would have worn stays, and these were also part of the recreation. Ninya told me: . . . the silk damask stays that Harriet made for Marie Antoinette were ridiculously beautiful. There was an elegant sash at the waist, made by Hannah.

Even though the dress looks simple in style, it would nevertheless have been costly to make in the 18th century, as was demonstrated in its reconstruction. Ninya also gave a useful tip to all budding seamstresses on how to make a level hem. Tip of the series!

Perspectives
On reflection, I found the story of Dido Belle the most compelling. And while her dress appeared the most simple among the six, it was, as Ninya told me, a challenge for her team.

But as I think back on the last program and the beautiful dress that was worn by Marie Antoinette, I have to say that was my favorite. Elegant in its ‘simplicity’.

I asked Amber which costume she found the most challenging. This is what she told me: The most challenging to research in many ways was Dido Belle, and also the Hedge Cutter. Researching working dress can be difficult as it doesn’t tend to be kept in museums and wasn’t seriously written about until relatively recently. Dido has a really compelling story, and the transatlantic slave trade played a huge part in our history but is often overlooked. It runs like a thread through fashion history as it relates to cotton, and so I felt it needed to be addressed.

But what was her favorite costume? Having discovered online (from an interview she once gave) that green is apparently her favorite color, I expected her to choose the Arnolfini dress. But no!

In terms of aesthetic, I love the Charles II suit and would absolutely wear it, she replied (in the photo above it does really look elegant on her). In terms of uniqueness of experience, she continued, and historical revelation, it would be the Black Prince’s jupon. Such an incredible experience to literally walk in his shoes, and so far from the clothing that we’re used to today. Experimental archaeology at its best!

So there you have it.

I don’t think I’ll look at a portrait again in quite the same way during one of my many National Trust visits. This series has certainly opened my eyes to another aspect of social history that had, until now, passed me by.

If I have one criticism of the series, it would be this. Each program was short by about 15 minutes, that would have allowed just a little more time to explore the background story, and to focus in on some more detail of the actual techniques for making the costumes. BBC producers take note!

So, I hope that the BBC will commission another series, and allocate sufficient air time to do justice to this fascinating subject. Amber Butchart’s A Stitch in Time has been a joy to watch. This is why we willingly pay the TV licence fee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Birmingham Class of ’71: plant genetic resources pioneers

Pioneers. That’s what we were. Or, at least, that’s what we thought we were.

Five individuals arriving at The University of Birmingham’s Department of Botany in September 1970 to study on the one-year MSc degree course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR).

Professor Jack Hawkes was the Course Leader, supported by Dr Trevor Williams (as Course Tutor) [1].

Professor Jack Hawkes (L) and Dr Trevor Williams (R)

The MSc course had its first intake (of four students from Canada, Brazil, and the UK) in September 1969. Twenty years later (which was celebrated at the time), hundreds of students had received training in genetic conservation at Birmingham. The course would continue to flourish for a further decade or so, but by the early 2000s there was less demand, limited financial resources to support students, and many of the staff at the university who were the lynch-pins of teaching on the course had moved on or retired.

However, the course had made its impact. There is no doubt of that. Birmingham genetic resources graduates were working all around the world, leading collection and conservation efforts at national levels and, in many cases, helping their countries—and the world—to set policy for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). At the FAO conference on PGRFA held in Leipzig, Germany in 1996, for example, about 50 of the national delegations were led by, or had members, who had received training at Birmingham.

Former Birmingham MSc and Short Course PGR students (and two staff from IPGRI), at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie in the middle of the front row. Just two former students who attended the conference do not feature in this photo.

The Class of ’71
So, in September 1970, who comprised the second CUPGR cohort? We came from five countries:

  • Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela
  • Altaf-ur-Rehman Rao from Pakistan
  • Ayla Sencer from Turkey
  • Folu Dania-Ogbe from Nigeria
  • Mike Jackson (me!) from the UK

Having just graduated a couple of months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc degree in Botany and Geography, I was the youngest of the group, just approaching my 22nd birthday. Folu was almost four years my senior, and Ayla was perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, but I’m not sure. Altaf was 34, and Felix the ‘elder’ of the class, at 38.

I guess Ayla was the only one with a specific genetic resources background, coming to Birmingham from an agricultural research institute near Izmir, and having already been involved with conservation work. Felix and Altaf were both academics. As recent graduates, Folu and I were just starting to think about a career in this new field of plant genetic resources. We wouldn’t be disappointed!

Studying alongside mature students who were not only older than my eldest brother (nine years my senior), but who had taken a year out from their jobs to study for a higher degree, was a novel experience for me. There was also a language barrier, to some extent. Felix probably had the weakest English skills; Ayla had already made some good progress before arriving in Birmingham but she struggled with some aspects of the language. Both Altaf and Folu spoke English fluently as a second language.

We occupied a small laboratory on the north corridor, first floor of the School of Biological Sciences building, just a couple of doors down from where Jack, as Mason Professor of Botany and Head of Department, had his office, and just across from Trevor’s office. In 1981, when I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in Plant Biology, that same room became my research laboratory for six or seven years.

Folu and myself had desk space on one side of the lab, and the others on the other side. We spent a lot of time huddled together in that room. In order to save us time hunting for literature in the university library, we had access to a comprehensive collection of photocopies of many, if not most, of the scientific papers on the prodigious reading lists given to us.

Richard Lester

We had a heavy schedule of lectures, in crop evolution, taxonomic methods, economic botany (from Dr Richard Lester), population genetics and statistics (from staff of the Department of Genetics), computer programming and data management (in its infancy then), germplasm collection, and conservation, among others. At the end of the course I felt that the lecture load during that one year was equivalent to my three-year undergraduate degree course. We also had practical classes, especially in crop diversity and taxonomy, and at the end of the teaching year in May, we had to sit four written exam papers, each lasting three hours.

There were also guest lectures from the likes of experts like Erna Bennett (from FAO) and Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

We also had to choose a short research project, mostly carried out during the summer months through the end of August, and written up and presented for examination in September. While the bulk of the work was carried out following the exams, I think all of us had started on some aspects much earlier in the academic year. In my case, for example, I had chosen a topic on lentil evolution by November 1970, and began to assemble a collection of seeds of different varieties. These were planted (under cloches) in the field by the end of March 1971, so that they were flowering by June. I also made chromosome counts on each accession in my spare time from November onwards, on which my very first scientific paper was based.

At the end of the course, all our work, exams and dissertation, was assessed by an external examiner (a system that is commonly used among universities in the UK). The examiner was Professor Norman Simmonds, Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) just south of Edinburgh [2]. He made his scientific reputation working on bananas and potatoes, and published several books including an excellent text on crop evolution [3].

Then and now
So how did we all end up in Birmingham, and what happened after graduation?

Felix received his first degree in genetics (Doutor em Agronomia) in 1955 from the Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. He was a contemporary of Almiro Blumenschein, who went on to collaborate with geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McLintock on the maizes of South America, and head the Brazilian agricultural research institute EMBRAPA (which is the parent organization for the Brazilian national genebank CENARGEN).

Returning to Venezuela, Felix was involved (from 1956-1961) with a national project to breed the first Venezuelan hybrid corns and to organize commercial seed production while also looking after a collection of local varieties and races of corn.

In 1961 he started to work in the Facultad de Agronomía at the Universidad del Zulia, now one of the largest and most important universities in Venezuela. It seems he found out about the Birmingham course in 1969 through contact with Dr Jorge León, a Costarrican botanist working for IICA who had also been worked at FAO in genetic resources, and was a contemporary of Jack Hawkes in the 1960s genetic resources movement. León is second from right, standing, in the photo below. But Felix had also been inspired towards plant genetic resources by the book Plants, Man and Life by American geneticist Edgar Anderson.

Felix self-financed his studies at Birmingham, having taken a sabbatical leave from his university, and arriving in Birmingham by the middle of August. In December 1970, Felix returned briefly to Venezuela to bring his young wife Laura and his newly-born son Leonardo to Birmingham. They took up residence in a house owned by Jack Hawkes in Harborne, a suburb close to the university.

His dissertation, on the effect on growth of supra-optimal temperatures on a local Venezuelan sorghum variety, was supervised by plant physiologist Digby Idle. Having been awarded his MSc (the degree was conferred in December 1971), Felix returned to his university in Maracaibo, and continued his work in sorghum breeding. He was one of the pioneers to introduce grain sorghums in Venezuela, and continued working at the university up until about five years ago when, due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in his native country, Felix and Laura (who has an MSc degree from Vanderbilt University) decided to move to Florida and enjoy their retirement there. His three sons and six grandchildren had already left Venezuela.

Felix and I made contact with each other through Facebook, and it has been wonderful to catch up with him after almost five decades, and to know that since his Birmingham days he has enjoyed a fruitful career in academia and agricultural research, and remains as enthusiastic today, in his mid-eighties, as he was when I first knew him in September 1970.

Altaf was born in Faisalabad in December 1936, and when he came to Birmingham in 1970 he was already Assistant Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. He had received his BSc (Agric.) degree from that university in 1957, followed by an MSc (Agric.) in 1962.

I cannot remember the topic of his dissertation nor who supervised it, perhaps Richard Lester. After graduation he moved to Bangor University to complete a PhD in 1974 on the genetic variation and distribution of Himalayan wheats and barleys, under the supervision of Professor John Witcombe (from whom I obtained the various photos of Altaf). In 1974 he joined a joint Bangor University-Lyallpur University to collect wheats and barley in northern Pakistan.

He continued his teaching at Faisalabad until 1996 when he retired as Professor of Botany. But he wasn’t finished. He joined the Cholistan Institute of Desert Studies at Islamia Universty and was director from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, in December 2000, just four days after his 64th birthday, Altaf passed away, leaving a wife, two daughters and four sons. Remembered for his devotion to plant genetic resources and desert ecology, you can read his obituary here.

Genetic resources conservation in Turkey received a major boost in the mid-1960s when an agreement was signed between the Government of Turkey and the United Nations Special Fund to establish a ‘Crop Research and Introduction Centre‘ at Menemen, Izmir. The Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI, now the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute) became the location for this project, and Ayla was one of the first scientists to be involved.

Ayla came to Birmingham with a clear focus on what she wanted to achieve. She saw the MSc course as the first step to completing her PhD, and even arrived in Birmingham with samples of seeds for her research. During the course she completed a dissertation (with Jack Hawkes) on the origin of rye (Secale cereale), and she continued this project for a further two years or so for her PhD. I don’t recall whether she had the MSc conferred or not. In those days, it was not unusual for someone to convert an MSc course into the first year of a doctoral program; I’m pretty sure this is what Ayla did.

Completing her PhD in 1973 or 1974, Ayla continued to work with the Turkish genetic resources program until 1981 when she accepted a position at the International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, as the first curator of the center’s wheat collection.

I believe Ayla stayed at CIMMYT until about 1990 or so, and then returned to Turkey. I know that she has retired with her daughter to a small coastal town southwest from Izmir, but I’ve been unable to make contact with her directly. The photo below was sent to me by Dr Tom Payne who is the current curator of CIMMYT’s wheat collection. He had dinner with Ayla a couple of years ago during one of his visits to Turkey.

Folu married shortly before traveling to Birmingham. Her husband had enrolled for a PhD at University College London. He had seen a small poster about the MSc course at Birmingham on a notice board at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where Folu had completed her BSc in Botany. She applied successfully for financial support from the Mid-Western Nigeria Government to attend the MSc course, and subsequently her PhD studies.

Dr Dennis Wilkins

Before coming to Birmingham, Folu had not worked in genetic resources, but had a flair for genetics. Like me, she hoped that the course would be a launch pad for an interesting career. Her MSc dissertation—on floating rice—was supervised Dr Dennis Wilkins, an ecophysiologist. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dennis supervised the PhD of World Food Prize Laureate Monty Jones, who is now the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Sierra Leone.

After completing her MSc, Folu began a PhD under the supervision of Trevor Williams on the taxonomy of West African rice, which she completed in 1974. To successfully grow her rice varieties, half of one glasshouse at the department’s garden at Winterbourne was successfully converted to a rice paddy.

In this photo, taken during her PhD studies, Folu’s mother (who passed away in January 2018) visited her in Birmingham. Folu can’t remember the three persons between her and her mother, but on the far left is Dr Rena Martins Farias from Brazil, who was one of the first cohort of MSc students in 1969.

Folu also had the opportunity of joining a germplasm collecting mission to Turkey during 1972. In this photo, Folu (on the right) and Ayla (on the left) are collecting wheat landrace varieties.

Returning to Nigeria, Folu joined the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Benin, Benin City until 2010, when she retired. She taught a range of courses related to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, and conducted research on the taxonomy of African crop plants, characterization of indigenous crops from West Africa, and the ethnobotany of useful indigenous African plants. She counts among her most important contributions to genetic resources the training courses she helped deliver, and the research linkages she promoted among various bodies in Nigeria. She has published extensively.

After retirement from the University of Benin, she was seconded to the new Samuel Adegboyega University at Ogwa in Edo State, where she is Professor and Dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. She has three children and five grandchildren.

As for myself, I was the only member of our class to be interviewed for a place on the MSc course, in February 1970. I’d heard about it from genetics lecturer at Southampton, Dr Joe Smartt, who stopped me in the corridor one day and gave me a pamphlet about the course, mentioning that he thought this would be right up my street. He wasn’t wrong!

However, my attendance was not confirmed until late August, because Jack Hawkes was unable to secure any financial support for me until then.

Trevor Williams supervised my dissertation on the origin of lentil (Lens culinaris), but as early as February 1971, Jack Hawkes had told me about an opportunity to work in Peru for a year after I’d completed the course, looking after a germplasm collection of native potato varieties at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. In October 1971 I began a PhD (under Jack’s supervision) on the relationships between diploid and tetraploid potatoes (which I successfully defended in October 1975), and joined CIP in January 1973. Continuing with my thesis research, I also made several potato collecting missions in different regions of Peru.

From 1976-1981 I continued with CIP as its regional research leader in Central America, based in Costa Rica, working on disease resistance and potato production. I spent a decade back at The University of Birmingham from April 1981, mainly teaching on the genetic resources MSc course, carrying out research on potatoes and legumes, and supervising PhD students.

In 1991, I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in the Philippines as the first head of the Genetic Resources Center, looking after the International Rice Genebank, and managing a major project to collect and conserve rice genetic resources worldwide. In 2001, I gave up research, left the genebank, and joined IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, until 2010 when I retired.

But I’ve not rested on my laurels. Since retirement, I’ve organized two international rice science conferences for IRRI in Vietnam and Thailand, co-edited a second book on genetic resources and climate change, and led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program.

My wife Steph is a genetic resources graduate from Birmingham, in 1972, and she joined me at CIP in July 1973 after leaving her position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station where she helped to curate the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC).

We have two daughters, Hannah and Philippa (both PhD psychologists), and four grandchildren.

Sitting (L to R): Callum, Hannah, Zoe, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael (L) and Andi (R).

Looking back at the past five decades, I think I can speak for all of us that we had successful careers in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, repaying the investments supporting us to study at Birmingham all those years ago. What a journey it has been!

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[1] Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 1970s to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International) in Rome.

[2] The SPBS merged with the the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in Dundee in 1981 to become the Scottish Crops Research Institute. It is now the James Hutton Institute.

[3] Simmonds, NW (ed), 1976. Evolution of Crop Plants. Longman, London. A second edition, co-edited with Joe Smartt was published in 1995.

 

Breathing life into history

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my hobbies is history (and archeology to some extent). I’ve often wondered whether I should have read history at university instead of botany. And, when I retired almost eight years ago, I did ponder taking a history degree course at the Open University. However, having decided that retirement meant I no longer had to meet deadlines any more, the allure of studying again soon faded.

Nevertheless, much of my reading focuses on history, and I’ve built up a sizeable library (mostly paperbacks) covering all periods and disciplines (social, economic, cultural, etc.). When we lived overseas in the Philippines I would take back half a suitcase of books after each annual home-leave in the UK. Near where my elder daughter lives in St Paul, Minnesota there is an excellent book store where I’ve been able to pick up a whole range of texts, many about the American Civil War, that I’ve never seen on sale over this side of the Atlantic. There are several university colleges near Half Price Books on Ford Parkway, where students divest themselves of course books each year—to my great advantage.

Here in the UK we are also fortunate that BBC2, BBC4 and Channel 4 regularly broadcast history programs of high quality, and others on archaeology, that provide interesting perspectives on how cultures and societies evolved. Steph and I have been enjoying many of these since we returned to the UK in 2010.

I guess my own fascination with history and archaeology on TV began with Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, a thirteen part documentary series, first broadcast on BBC2 in 1969 about the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. It was apparently the first series commissioned specifically for colour television in the UK (by Sir David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2). I didn’t actually see the series then; I was too busy being an undergraduate. We acquired the DVD in 2005.

Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, broadcast in 1973 (and which we also viewed years later on DVD), was a highly-acclaimed personal view about the development of human society through its understanding of science.

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (broadcast from September 2000, over 15 hour-long programs in three series until June 2002) was his personal view of different periods of British (actually, mainly English) history and its events. Once again, we caught up on DVD.

And during this period of working overseas, we enjoyed (on DVD) an impressive list of programs by Michael Wood, in a broadcasting career that began in 1979. He has had several series since we returned to the UK.

David Starkey is a hardy perennial who focuses on the Tudors. Despite several controversies that have surrounded him, he still appears quite regularly.

There is quite a long list of presenters (see below) whose programs we have enjoyed since 2010, covering a wide range of topics and periods. Just this past few weeks we’ve enjoyed a three-part series by Helen Castor about England’s first queen, Jane (great granddaughter of Henry VII), whose reign lasted just nine days in July 1553.

Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon is the ‘flavor of the month’ right now. A two part series, Rome Unpacked, co-presented with chef Giorgio Locatelli about the cultural history of Rome and its cuisine concluded last week. For some reason we didn’t watch the three series of Italy Unpacked broadcast between 2013 and 2015. He’s just started a four part series about the Royal Collection on BBC4, and next week he has a one-off program on BBC2 about the theft of two paintings by Van Gogh from a museum in Amsterdam in 2002. He’s certainly one of the most engaging presenters currently on TV.

But there are two presenters who are new to me with series showing right now on BBC2 and BBC4, respectively.

David Olusoga is a British Nigerian historian, writer and broadcaster who I’d never heard of until his four part series A House Through Time began three weeks ago. It tells the social history of Liverpool through the lives of families who occupied a single house, from when it was built about 200 years ago until the present day.

62 Falkner Street (at one time, number 58) is a four storey terraced house in what was once a fashionable neighborhood, in the Georgian Quarter east of the city center, but within easy striking distance of the docks that were the basis of the city’s prosperity for so many decades.

It has been painstakingly researched. There must be a large team of researchers behind the scenes digging into the census records and other documents published in Liverpool that have provided insights into the business and economic history of the city. It’s a very engaging way to tell the social history of this important port city in England’s northwest, that climbed to the pinnacle of economic prosperity in the 19th century, and fell to the depths of economic decline in the late 20th.

Combining the history of art and fashion, A Stitch in Time (a six part series on BBC4) is presented by TV newcomer Amber Butchart, who has published several books and appears regularly apparently on BBC radio.

Amber is certainly a breath of fresh air, with her flamboyant fashion style, bright red hair, and piercingly blue eyes. Her range of clothes certainly needs a personality like Amber’s to carry off successfully. Elegant!

Working with historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and her team, Amber fuses biography, art, and the history of fashion, and explores the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore.

In the first program, she looked at the fashion of Charles II’s restoration, and in the second the green gown worn by the lady in the 1434 Arnolfini portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck. The third program was unusual in that the portrait was of a working man, a hedge-cutter, wearing a hand-me-down leather coat.

In each program Amber talks about the social status and lives of the subjects that we can deduce from each painting, while Ninya and her team recreate a costume just from their view of the painting and their detailed understanding of how clothes were made in the past. The Arnolfini recreation was outstanding.

From the outset I wouldn’t have imagined that a series along these lines would grab my attention. I guess we watched the first episode because there was nothing else worth watching across the channels. But then we were hooked, and I hope that the BBC will commission Amber to undertake other projects in the future.

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  • Dan Snow: a Modern History graduate from Oxford University, Snow has an impressive list of programs under his belt.
  • Mary Beard: Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, Beard has presented programs on Rome and Pompeii, among others. Very entertaining.
  • Niall Ferguson: Scottish-born Ferguson has affiliations with many academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic and specializes in economic and financial history.
  • Simon Sebag-Montefiore: he has presented some excellent city histories, on Jerusalem, Rome, Byzantium, and Vienna.
  • Lucy Worsley: she is Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and has been presenting since 2009, and has written a number of books. Renowned for her penchant for dressing up in her programs, I guess she is not everyone’s cup of tea. But we find her engaging.
  • Suzannah Lipscombe: is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton, and has an impressive list of TV programs to her name.
  • Bettany Hughes: specializes in classical history, and has been broadcasting since the late 1990s.
  • Clare Jackson: is a senior tutor at Cambridge University and has a particular interest in 17th century English history.
  • Dan Jones: a writer and historian, his book on the Plantagenets was adapted for television in 2014 on Channel 5.
  • Sam Willis: is a military historian affiliated with the University of Plymouth.
  • Saul David: is Professor of Military History at the University of Buckingham.
  • Ruth Goodman: is a British freelance historian of the early modern period, specializing in offering advice to museums and heritage attractions.
  • Janina Ramirez: is an art and cultural historian, who works at Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education.
  • Jago Cooper: archaeologist and the Curator of the Americas at the British Museum, and specializes in the history and pre-Columbian archaeology of South America. He has presented programs on the Incas and lost kingdoms of Central America (areas particularly close to my heart, having lived in Peru and Costa Rica for over eight years in the 1970s).
  • Neil Oliver: is a Scottish archaeologist who has presented programs on the Vikings and is a resident presenter on Coast.
  • Alice Roberts: is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at The University of Birmingham. A medical doctor and anatomist by training, Roberts front many programs bringing together expertise in archaeology and history, and appears frequently on the BBC.
  • Waldemar Januszczak: is an art critic and TV presenter and documentary producer, with many films to his credit since 1997.

He had the patience of Job

21 December 1972. How 45 years have flown by.

I’d left my apartment in Birmingham, said goodbye to many friends in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham, and headed the 60 miles north to Leek in Staffordshire to spend what would be my last Christmas in the UK for almost a decade with my parents, my elder brother Ed who had arrived from Canada. Then after Christmas, I spent a couple of days in London with my girlfriend, Steph; we married in Lima later in 1973.

I’d turned 24 a month earlier, and two weeks hence on 4 January 1973 I would be on a flight from London to Lima, Peru to join the International Potato Center (CIP) as an Associate Taxonomist. I can’t deny that I faced that journey and joining CIP with a certain amount of trepidation. I’d only been outside the UK on one occasion (to Turkey in early 1972). My horizons were definitely limited.

Furthermore, I spoke hardly a word of Spanish. Now that was my fault. And it wasn’t. I’d had ample opportunity while at Birmingham once I knew I’d be working in Peru to make an effort to learn some basic Spanish. But I was rather dilatory in my approach.

On the top of the university’s Muirhead Tower, a language laboratory was open to all staff and students to improve, at their own pace, their existing language skills or ones that they wished to acquire. The laboratory was equipped with a number of individual audio booths where you could listen to classes on tape, and follow along with the standard text from which the classes had been developed.

I started, and really intended to continue. Then the only copy of the text book went missing. I gave up.

So, my language skills were essentially non-existent when I landed in Lima on Thursday 4 January 1973. Staying at the Pensión Beech on Los Libertadores in the Lima suburb of San Isidro, I couldn’t even order my breakfast the following morning. Fortunately, Mrs. Beech, the formidable British-born proprietor, came to my rescue. Thereafter I quickly gained enough vocabulary so I didn’t starve. But it was a month or two before I plucked up enough courage to visit a barber’s shop (peluquería) to have my hair cut.

The secretarial and some of the administrative staff at CIP spoke English, and I was indeed very fortunate to receive great support from them, particularly in my first months as I found my feet and started to pick up the language.

All expat staff were offered Spanish classes, provided by freelance teacher Sr Jorge Palacios. And it was that gentleman who had, in my opinion, the patience of Job, listening, day after day, to our pathetic attempts to make sense of what is a beautiful language. Some long-term CIP staff never really did become that fluent in Spanish. I’m sure my old CIP friends can guess who they were.

Unfortunately I don’t have any photo of Sr Jorge*. Yesterday, I placed a comment on a Friends of CIP Facebook group page asking if anyone had a photo. An old and dear friend from my very first days at CIP, Maria Scurrah replied: I certainly remember that thin, never-aging but already old, proper Spanish teacher. And that’s how I also remember Jorge. It was impossible to tell just how old he was, maybe already in his 50s when I first knew him in January 1973.

It was arranged to meet with Sr Jorge at least a couple of times a week; maybe it was more. We agreed that the most convenient time would be the early evening. He would come to my apartment (in Los Pinos in Miraflores), and spend an hour working our way through different exercises, using exactly the same text that was ‘lost’ in Birmingham! Anther colleague who joined CIP within a week or so of me was German pathologist Rainer Zachmann. He also took an apartment in the same building as me. I was on the 12th floor, he on the sixth. So Sr Jorge would call on me, then descend to spend an hour with Rainer, after which we would all go out to dinner at a local restaurant. Through these Spanish classes, and dinner conversation, Jorge introduced me to the delights of Peruvian Chinese cuisine, and there was a good restaurant or chifa just a block or so away from our apartment building, perhaps further along Av. Larco.

It didn’t take long, however, before my classes became intermittent. I was travelling to and spending more time in Huancayo, and in May that year, my germplasm colleague Zosimo Huaman and I spent almost a month exploring for potato varieties in the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad. With the basics that I’d learned from Sr Jorge, and being put in situations where my companions/co-workers did not speak English, I was ‘forced’ to practice—and improve—my rudimentary Spanish.

End of the road – getting to walk into several communities, May 1973

During that trip to Ancash, Zosimo and I found ourselves in a remote village that had been very badly affected by the May 1970 earthquake that had devastated many parts of Ancash. I don’t remember the names or exact locations of the two communities we walked into, except that they were deep in the mountains beyond Chavín de Huantar. It was their fiesta day, and we were welcomed as auspicious visitors, particularly me, as once it was revealed that I was from England, I became a representative of La Reina Isabel (Queen Elizabeth II).

The schoolmaster and his wife and son, with Zosimo Huaman on the right.

A ‘town meeting’ was quickly called and organized by the rather inebriated schoolmaster. Zosimo and I were the guests of honor, and it became clear during the schoolmaster’s speech of welcome that I would have to respond in some way. But what about my lack of Spanish? The schoolmaster explained that the community felt abandoned by the Peruvian government, and even three years on from the earthquake had still not received any material assistance. He implored me to bring their plight to the attention of the British Government and, as the ‘Queen’s representative’, get assistance for them. What was I to reply?

I was able to follow, more or less, what the schoolmaster was saying, and Zosimo filled in the bits I missed. I asked him how to say this or that, and quickly jotted down some sentences on the palm of my hand.

It was now my turn to reply. I congratulated the community on its festive day, stating how pleased Zosimo and I were to be there, and taking note of their situation which I would mention to the British ambassador in Lima (my position at CIP was funded through the then Overseas Development Administration, now the Department for International Development, and I would regularly meet the ODA representative in the embassy, or attend social functions at the ambassador’s residence).

As I sat down, everyone in that room, 150 or more, stood up and each and everyone one came and shook my hand. It was quite overwhelming.

I found that trying to use what little Spanish I had was more useful than having continuous lessons. Nevertheless, the solid grounding I received from Sr Jorge stood me in good stead. When we moved to Costa Rica in April 1976, I had to speak Spanish almost all the time. Very few of the persons I worked with in national programs spoke any English; my two assistants in Turrialba none at all.

By the time I left Latin America in March 1991 I was pretty fluent in Spanish. I could hold my own, although I have to admit that I have never been any good at writing Spanish. During the 1980s when I had a research project with CIP, I travelled to Lima on several occasions. By then, Sr Jorge was no longer freelancing and had become a CIP staff member. We always took time during one of those visits to having lunch together and reminiscing over times past. By the time I visited CIP once again in the mid-1990s he must have retired, as I never saw him again.

My Spanish still resurfaces from time to time. I can follow it quite easily if I hear it on the TV, and during my visit to CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT in 2016 (as part of a review of genebanks) I was able to participate in the discussions easily enough that took place in Spanish. My Spanish teacher had obviously given me a very good grounding of the basics.

Sr Jorge Palacios – a real gentleman, with the patience of Job.

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*  If anyone who reads this post has such a photo, or knows how/where to get hold of one, I’d appreciate hearing from you and receiving a copy. Thank you.

Laos – jewel in the rice biodiversity crown

From 1995 to late 2000, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through its Genetic Resources Center (GRC, now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center) coordinated a project to collect and conserve the genetic diversity of rice varieties that smallholder farmers have nourished for generations in Asia and Africa. The collecting program also targeted many of the wild species relatives of cultivated rice found in those continents as well as Latin America.

With a grant of more than USD3 million from the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) the project made significant collections of rice varieties and wild species at a time when, in general, there was a moratorium on germplasm exploration worldwide. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force at the end of December 1993, and many countries were developing and putting in place policies concerning access to germplasm. Many were reluctant to allow access to non-nationals, or even exchange germplasm internationally. It’s not insignificant then that IRRI was able to mount such a project with the full cooperation of almost 30 countries, and many collecting expeditions were made, many of them including IRRI staff.

As Head of GRC from 1991 to 2001, I developed the project concept and was responsible for its implementation, recruiting several staff to fill a number of important positions for germplasm collection, project management, and the research and training components. I have written about the project in more detail elsewhere in this blog.

One of the most important strategic decisions we took was to locate one staff member, Dr Seepana Appa Rao, in Laos (also known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) where IRRI already managed the Lao-IRRI project for the enhancement of the rice sector. This project was also funded by the SDC, so it was a natural fit to align the rice germplasm activities alongside, and to some extent within, the ongoing Lao-IRRI Project.

The leader of the Lao-IRRI Project was Australian agronomist, Dr John Schiller, who had spent about 30 years working in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and whose untimely death was announced just yesterday¹.

Until Appa Rao moved to Laos, very little germplasm exploration had taken place anywhere in the country. It was a total germplasm unknown, but with excellent collaboration with national counterparts, particularly Dr Chay Bounphanousay (now a senior figure in Lao agriculture), the whole of the country was explored and more than 13,000 samples of cultivated rice collected from the different farming systems, such as upland rice and rainfed lowland rice. A local genebank was constructed by the project, and duplicate samples were sent to IRRI for long-term storage as part of the International Rice Genebank Collection in GRC. Duplicate samples of these rice varieties were also sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault when IRRI made its various deposits in that permafrost facility inside the Arctic Circle.

Appa Rao and John Schiller (in the center) discussing Lao rice varieties. Im not sure who the person in the blue shirt is. In the background, IRRI scientist Eves Loresto describes rice diversity to her colleague, Mauricio Bellon.

Of particular interest is that Lao breeders immediately took an interest in the collected germplasm as it was brought back to the experiment station near the capital Vientiane, and multiplied in field plots prior to storage in the genebanks. There are few good examples where breeders have taken such an immediate interest in germplasm in this way. In so many countries, germplasm conservation and use activities are often quite separate, often in different institutions. In some Asian countries, rice genebanks are quite divorced from crop improvement, and breeders have no ready access to germplasm samples.

Appa Rao was an assiduous rice collector, and spent weeks at a time in the field, visiting the most remote localities. He has left us with a wonderful photographic record of rice in Laos, and I have included a fine selection below. We also published three peer-reviewed papers (search for Appa Rao’s name here) and seven of the 25 chapters in the seminal Rice in Laos edited by John and others. 

The rices from Laos now represent one of the largest components (maybe the largest) of the International Rice Genebank Collection. Many are unique to Laos, particularly the glutinous varieties.

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¹ Yesterday, I received an email from one of my former IRRI colleagues, Professor Melissa Fitzgerald who is now at the University of Queensland, with the very sad news that John Schiller had been found in his apartment just that morning. It’s believed he had passed away due to heart failure over the course of the weekend.

I first met John in November 1991, a few months after I’d joined IRRI. He and I were part of a group of IRRI scientists attending a management training course, held at a beach resort bear Nasugbu on the west coast of Luzon, south of Manila. The accommodation was in two bedroom apartments, and John and I shared one of those, so I got to know him quite well.

Our friendship blossomed from 1995 onwards when we implemented the rice biodiversity project, Appa Rao was based in Vientiane, and I would travel there two or three times a year. In February 1997, I had the opportunity of taking Steph with me on one trip, and that coincided with the arrival of another IRRI agronomist, Bruce Linquist (with his wife and small son) to join the Lao-IRRI Project. We were invited to the Lao traditional welcoming or Baci ceremony at John’s house, for the Linquists and Steph. I’d already received this ceremony on my first visit to Laos in 1995 or 1996.

John also arranged for Appa and Chay to show Steph and me something of the countryside around Vientiane. Here were are at the lookout over the Ang Nam Ngum Lake, just north of the capital, where we took a boat trip.

L to R: Mrs Appa Rao, Appa, Kongphanh Kanyavong, Chay Bounphanousay, Steph, and me.

After he retired from IRRI, John moved back to Brisbane, and was given an honorary fellowship at the University of Queensland. He continued to support training initiatives in Laos. As he himself said, his heart was with those people. But let John speak for himself.

My other close colleague and former head of IRRI’s Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel, overnight wrote this eloquent and touching obituary about John and his work, that was published today on the IRRI News website. Just click on the image to read this in more detail.

 

No longer Queen of the Skies

Yesterday, I was sorting through some old 35 mm slides and came across this one taken at Istanbul’s Yeşilköy Airport, in April 1972. There, on the tarmac, are a Turkish Airlines DC-9 and Boeing 707 and, on the left, a Sabena Sud Aviation Caravelle (last flown by any airline in 2005). I’ve flown that aircraft, but I can’t remember when or where. I first flew the 707 in April 1972 on Turkish Airlines from London to Istanbul. Then next, in January 1973, on the B.O.A.C. (that’s British Airways today) route to Lima, Peru via Antigua in the Caribbean, Caracas (Venezuela), and Bogotá (Colombia).

One aircraft that I have since flown countless times is the iconic Boeing 747, in at least five of its configurations: 200, 300, 400, 400-Combi, and SR. So the news that United Airlines had retired its 747 fleet caught my eye a few days ago.

On 7 November, United Airlines flew its last 747 flight. Ever! Flight UA747 between San Francisco (SFO) and Honolulu (HNL) recreated the first ever 747 flight on the same route, on 23 July 1970.

The Boeing 747 flew for the very first time on 9 February 1969, and its launch airline was Pan American World Airways, on 22 January 1970.

The Boeing 747, being displayed to the public for the first time, on 30 September 1968.

Just 50 years since it made its maiden flight, and the 747 is on its way out. Not only has it been retired from United’s fleet, by the end of this year no US airline will operate this beautiful aircraft, the Queen of the Skies, at least as a passenger aircraft. Cathay Pacific had already retired its last passenger jumbo 747-400 in 2016, as did Air France. Singapore Airlines retired its 747 fleet as long ago as 2012. British Airways still has the largest fleet, and Lufthansa and KLM operate significant fleets. But for how much longer? I guess that before long the 747’s recognisable bubble will no longer be seen at airports around the world.

Fifty years ago, the 747 was a game-changer, making intercontinental travel accessible and affordable to the masses.

When did you last fly a 747? It must be a decade ago that Steph and I flew to Minnesota for Christmas on Northwest Airlines. I think our first 747 flight was from Miami to London Heathrow on British Airways, in November 1978. But I’m not sure.

For a decade, when we lived in the Philippines, we regularly flew back to Europe on homeleave on KLM’s 747 (often Combi aircraft) service via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam’s Schipol. Many work trips to Europe were enjoyed on Lufthansa, or to the US on Northwest Airlines, and subsequently Delta. Some of the more exciting landings on an aircraft of this size were into Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak airport, as this Malaysian Airlines 747 shows.

I’ve flown in all three classes on the 747, mostly in Business Class. Whenever possible on Lufthansa, I upgraded to First Class using airmiles. It was on one of these flights from Frankfurt to Manila via Bangkok (and a colleague of mine and I were the only passengers in First Class out of Bangkok) that I had the opportunity of sitting in the jump seat on the flight deck for the landing at Manila. Magical! Those were, of course, pre-9/11 days.

At its launch, and for several decades afterwards, aircraft flying over oceans were required to have four engines. That’s no longer the case, and most long-distance flights now operate on twin-engined aircraft, since engines have become much more reliable. Today, most airlines operate twin-engined Boeing 777s or Airbus A330s (although they are also on their way out), and now the ‘new’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner and its competitor Airbus A350. The days of the four engine behemoths are past, it seems. Almost.

The Airbus A380 came on to the scene just a decade ago. It made its maiden flight in April 2005, and went into service, with Singapore Airlines two and a half years later. Just 10 years later however (reported yesterday in fact), Singapore Airlines has ‘mothballed’ the first of its A380s.

Sales of the A380 have flagged, and Airbus is now making just a handful a year. Emirates Airlines operates the world’s largest fleet of this aircraft (many times more than any other airline), has just taken delivery of its 100th A380, and waits delivery of a further 45. But the airline is also staking its future also on the new generation 777s, with 150 on order, and has also just announced an order for 40 Dreamliners (much to the disappointment of Airbus that had hoped to woo Emirates with the A350).

I have flown the A380 on three occasions. In October 2010, I flew from Dubai to Bangkok, and was upgraded from Business Class to First since another passenger ‘claimed’ my seat. Then in November 2014, I flew in Business Class from Dubai to Bangkok in Business Class and used airmiles to upgrade to First for the return leg. Then a year ago, I flew Business Class from Birmingham (BHX) via Dubai (DXB) to Melbourne (MEL), Australia, with the DXB-MEL-DXB-BHX sectors on the A380. It’s a beautiful aircraft that I have waxed lyrical about before.

However, I think there’s one aircraft, sadly no longer operational, that’s even more iconic than the 747. The Anglo-French Concorde! With her distinctive shape and profile, Concorde turned heads wherever she flew around the world.

The last ever flight of any Concorde, 26th November 2003.

I got up close and personal with Concorde on one occasion. In June 1970, I’d just finished my final exams at the University of Southampton, and travelled to Fairford in Gloucestershire to spend a long weekend with my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline; also young Alex, just two years old. Martin was an engineer on the Concorde flight test program based at RAF Fairford, and took me to see the sleek bird. I remember walking around the aircraft, but whether we went on board or not is no longer clear to me.

Then in the 1980s I saw Concorde twice in the air. During the summer months, it’s not unusual for aircraft heading to Birmingham International (about 15 miles due east from Bromsgrove) to be placed in a holding pattern overhead. One weekend, I heard an approaching aircraft whose engines sounded very different from the usual suspects. Looking up, I saw Concorde banking towards Birmingham, at perhaps no more than 5000 feet. What a spectacular sight. Then, one holiday in Pembrokeshire in South Wales with Steph, Hannah, and Philippa, I heard a loud ‘bang’. I saw a white dot at high altitude streaking westwards across the sky to the south of where we were sitting on the beach. With my binoculars I confirmed it was a British Airways Concorde, heading for New York or Washington. The ‘bang’ must have been its sonic boom.

Concorde 001 flew for the first time from Toulouse on 2 March 1969, just a month after the 747 took to the skies. A month later still, on 9 April, Concorde 002, built in the UK by the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) took off from Filton north of Bristol and flew the short distance to RAF Fairford. During the flight test program, Martin went with Concorde around the world, where it was tested under different landing and take-off conditions. I’m not sure if he ever flew the aircraft.

Only ever operated by British Airways and Air France, Concorde’s supersonic service was launched on 21 January 1976. Just 14 of the 20 Concorde’s built were flown commercially.

Concorde’s fate was sealed however by a small piece of debris on the runway at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on 20 July 2000, which flew up and punctured one of the fuel tanks on AF4590, a charter flight from Paris to New York. Catching fire, Concorde plunged to the ground just minutes after take-off, killing all on board. Three years later, and also citing dwindling revenues, both airlines retired Concorde from their fleets. The supersonic era was over almost before it had begun.

And now I’ll never have that chance. But my mother did!

My brother was one of the lucky ones whose name ‘was pulled from the hat’ to enjoy a special flight on a British Airways Concorde from Filton. Instead, Martin and Pauline gave the seat to my Mum, and she took to the air on BA9082C on 14 July 1984, seat 16B. She was 76 years of age.

I guess the flight must have been a spin around the Bay of Biscay to the north coast of Spain and back to Filton, around two to three hours, and going supersonic for part of the flight. It was always one of Mum’s brightest memories.

 

On 13 July 1985, the Live Aid concert opened at Wembley Stadium in London at noon, then at the US venue in Philadelphia just under two hours later. Phil Collins (formerly of Genesis) performed his set in Wembley, took a helicopter to Heathrow and by flying on Concorde to the US, was able to join Eric Clapton on stage in Philadelphia a few hours later.

While the supersonic age has passed me by, and almost certain not to return in my lifetime, there are still many new aviation adventures to explore. I look forward to my first flights—whenever they may be—on the Dreamliner and the A350.