A tale of two tellies, travel shenanigans, and a late birthday celebration

I’m starting writing this post on 9th July, more than a week into the first month for some time when I’ve felt I had the time and mental space to write a blog post. Basically most of June passed in a blur; there were exam board meetings at Keele, external examining in Dublin and Sheffield, interviews for a new lectureship, and a lot of meetings associated with my position as acting head of school (now 7 months in and with no immediate sign of an end in sight!)

Starting with the ‘telly story’, our TV was beginning to show its age: it couldn’t pick up the HD channels (which was an issue when some favourite channels became HD only), and the remote control had finally given up the ghost having fallen from the sofa onto the floor one too many times. Of course, if the problem had only been with the remote, it could have been replaced. But for a number of years now we have debated whether we would buy a new TV or not. We don’t watch much television: the news channels, some sport (when it is shown), programmes like the various NCIS franchises (CSI having come to an end), and the odd drama series (often with ‘odd’ being the operative word). So it was decision time – to buy or not? Angela perused the sales; if we were going to buy it would need to be delivered, so that introduced some limitations. But she found a curved screen Sony OLED TV at a good price that could be delivered quickly for a very reasonable cost, and to cut a long story short, we went for it. We now have an amazing very large OLED TV which is a joy to watch. It actually doesn’t take up as much space as you might expect because it is really thin, so it can be positioned along a wall, occupying essentially dead space. We’ve had to invest in some adaptors to allow it to talk to our DVD player/VCR (!) and I still have to set this up, but the TV is great. We have been able to watch Wimbledon and the Tour de France as we have never seen them before, as well as some excellent drama series that have been shown recently.

Moving on to the travel story, on the last day of June we had a day trip to London to see the Hokosai Exhibition at the British Museum. It was amazing, and Angela is going to see it again next month. We had a nice day, and caught the 20:00 train back home to Stoke with no forebodings.  However, it slowed down a bit before Milton Keynes, and finally crawled into Milton Keynes station, where it sat for 4 hours! The reason: there was a person on the track near Rugby who was threatening suicide. The police tried to get him to move, and he then apparently got onto a bridge over the line and threatened to jump off. Anyway, it took 4 hours to resolve this, and get him to safety, and in the meantime all we could do was wait on the train. The buffet car had closed, and there were very few announcements (because the train manager was only getting very irregular updates). We had eaten just before catching the train, which was fortunate, but there was no free WiFi (Virgin Trains charge outside First Class) and phone reception was poor, so it was hard to find out what was going on. I had only brought one phone charger with me, and even that was running low. Eventually we got the all clear to move, and set off, finally rolling into Stoke station at about 01:30. Fortunately there was an enterprising taxi driver who had heard about the problems, and waited for the train. But ours was not the last train, so hopefully those on the later trains also managed to get to their destinations!

Finally for this post, I had my 60th birthday in January, but I was too busy with marking, teaching and administration to really enjoy it, so we delayed the celebration until July. We booked the KPA for 7 July, ordered a buffet and arranged there to be choice of real ales (including a personal favourite), and we had a great evening. About 20 people attended, and Angela provided an amazing pre-recorded sound track of 6.25 hours of music chronicling my life. The buffet provided by the KPA was great value, and definitely recommended.

Now it’s the 18th July, which gives you an idea of how busy I have been, even though it’s outside of our teaching semester. But I have managed to plan (and start) some new research projects, which is great. I’m not attending any conferences this summer, but next year we will have EURODIM2018 in Poland, so I need to prepare for that.

Looking ahead, a lot has happened very recently in politics on a personal level, but this is still rather in a state of flux. I hope to report more on this in my next post.


GE2017: concerns about the outcome

Following my brief post yesterday, here are some more thoughts on the General Election outcome.

Although the LibDems improved their position (12 MPs now), it was too early for them. They are still criticised for their role in the 2010-2015 coalition (which is unjustified in my opinion), and although Tim Farron is an excellent leader, he will always be a target because of his religious views. Whether this means they need a new leader is open to discussion, but now Vince Cable is back, he could provide an alternative, although he may be tarnished by his role in the coalition.

My main concern is actually with Labour’s performance. Yes, they did well, but Jeremy Corbyn still mainly appeals to those on the left of the party, and their good performance may have been partly due to the promises made, many of which were somewhat dubiously costed. Offering free tuition in universities for example undoubtedly enhanced the student vote, but it would be very difficult to actually deliver in practice. The problem as far as I am concerned is that Corbyn is now perceived to have ‘won over’ the party. He hasn’t, and there are many moderate centre left members and past members who are not convinced by him (myself included). I heard him saying this morning that he wants another General Election ‘soon’, and if this happened, and Labour won it, everyone would see for themselves that a lot of his promises are little more than hot air. I don’t want to see this happen to my old party.

And so I’ll end this post with the Tories. If Theresa May secures her deal with the DUP, it looks like it will be on a ‘needs’ basis only, and agreement for their support will have to be negotiated each time she needs a majority on some bill or piece of legislation. That is incredibly uncertain and unstable, and is no way to govern the country in these challenging times. A leadership election is almost inevitable, and unfortunately, another General Election once the DUP deal has fallen apart, as it certainly will. Difficult times lie ahead.

Brief thoughts on GE2017

The General Election that should never have happened has taken place, and the result was broadly in line with our predictions.

Theresa May misjudged the mood of the country, assuming she could get a large majority without trying. Labour engaged with the campaign, and Jeremy Corbyn showed more signs of leadership credentials than we have seen before. As for the LibDems, they improved their position and started the long road of recovery. I will write a longer post about the LibDem position when I have more time in a week or so. But the position now gives great cause for concern, with May depending on the support of the DUP to have a majority in parliament. Apart from the general undesirable qualities of the DUP, this is a very precarious situation to be in with the imminent Brexit negotiations coming up. We can only watch from the sidelines and hope for the best!

1997-2017: A political transition from triumph to despair

Just over 20 years ago, on May 1 1997, a General Election took place which Tony Blair and Labour won decisively. After years of supporting the Labour Party, and having become a member earlier that year, it was a wonderful time for me, full of hope for the future and a belief that things really ‘could only get better’. To put the icing on the cake, GB won the Eurovision Song Contest a couple of days later with Katrina and the Waves, with their song ‘Love shine a light’!

I have often asked the question ‘what went wrong’? World events didn’t help, and although I supported our intervention in Iraq at the time., clearly Labour lost a lot of support because of this. Making Gordon Brown leader didn’t help either (he was a great Chancellor of the Exchequer but no leader). In politics, parties tend to lose support after a long spell in power, and the 2010 election result was no surprise. Since then we’ve had 5 years of coalition government, and less than 2 years of the Tories, with David Cameron presiding over the EU Referendum with its disastrous result, and Theresa May taking over as PM. Now we have another election on June 8th, with an almost certain outcome of a large Tory majority and a hard Brexit. Labour have made themselves virtually unelectable thanks to their leader (and some of his shadow cabinet) , and it’s too soon for the LibDems to make much of a comeback, although they are making a spirited effort, which I am trying to help.

For me, we have truly gone from a time of positivity and belief in the future, to one of sheer despair. Sad times indeed.


Unexpected recollections

In the past 2 weeks I have run a meeting (see previous post), and also managed a few days off over the Easter weekend to recover from the meeting and the Spring Semester teaching period (although that still has a couple of weeks to go!)

The meeting that I organised was a 70th birthday celebration for Richard Catlow, who was my postdoctoral adviser, and who really got me started on my career. I managed to get many of his former group members to attend, and this brought back all manner of memories. In my days off I mulled over these with Angela, and we thought it was worth writing them down, so here are a few random memories from ‘back in the day’>

  • When I first joined Richard’s group, both at UCL and then at Keele, there was a lot of rivalry, even sometimes bad feeling between group members. Now we all get on fine, but it wasn’t always like that! I don’t know if this happens in other research groups; I have never had enough people working for me at a given time for this to be a problem!
  • In London last weekend we visited the American Dream Exhibition at the British Museum. Among the paintings exhibited was this one by Andy Warhol:

Of course, ALPO in this picture is a make of dog food. But seeing it immediately reminded me of my work many years ago on modelling AlPOs (aluminophosphates). Much work has been done on these materials since then, but back in the late 80s I had a PhD student working on modelling these materials. I do remember a lecture by Jack Klinowski where he showed this picture, but I hadn’t seen the original until last week. Oh, and the student decided research was not for her, and left without completing the project.

  • Another random recollection concerns a conference I attended on zeolites, held in Amsterdam in 1989. I was then a recently appointed lecturer, and wanted to keep costs down, so I stayed in a very cheap hotel next to one of the central canals. It was so basic that the shower room down the corridor was just a recess in the wall with only a curtain to preserve the modesty of the person in the shower! Having spent a month in Amsterdam a couple of years before, I knew the area well, but probably I wouldn’t stay in such a place now!
  • Finally, for now, I must thank David Coombes for reminding me that just over 20 years ago, on 21 April 2017, I was external examiner for his PhD viva. It was a Monday, and the viva was supposed to have taken place the previous Friday, but thanks to an IRA bomb scare, trains weren’t running on part of my route. This was of course prior to the Good Friday agreement that put an end to most of these problems.
  • I did think of some more things to write here, but didn’t note them down at the time, so they will be added later if and when I remember them!

Advances in computational and experimental studies of solids: a meeting to mark Richard Catlow’s 70th birthday (Cosener’s House, Abingdon, 10-12 April 2017)

It was back in March 2016 that I first had the idea that a meeting should be arranged to mark Richard Catlow’s 70th birthday. Having organised a similar occasion for his 60th birthday, back in 2007 (unfortunately pre-blog and my use of social media), this seemed appropriate. Initially the idea was to have an organising committee, and I approached potential members, but it soon became clear that it could only be done effectively by close liaison with Richard, and from then on I was effectively the sole organiser (although I am grateful for administrative help received later).

We discussed possible dates in April 2017, and where it could be held. Richard preferred a neutral venue not associated with his current employers, so eventually we settled on Cosener’s House, a place in Abingdon often used by people carrying out experiments at the nearby Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The venue was booked, and all available rooms were reserved, and we set about discussing who should be invited, before the event was advertised more widely. I made a list of Richard’s contemporaries who he particularly wanted to attend, and invited them. It was very encouraging that they all accepted. I then advertised the meeting to pre4sent and former group members, inviting them to register and present talks.

In September 2016 I met with Richard to discuss the general format of the meeting, and in February 2017 we started putting the programme together. All this coincided with my appointment as acting head of my school at Keele, and having two new modules to teach, so it was difficult for a couple of months. But by mid March everything was coming together. Ideally I would have liked a site visit, but there simply wasn’t time.  However, I had discussed everything in detail with both Richard and the Cosener’s House staff, so I hoped everything was in place!

On Sunday 9th April (2 weeks ago from writing this post), I set off to Oxford, staying overnight close to the station, and on Monday 10th April I took a taxi to Abingdon, arriving at Cosener’s House a few hours before the meeting was due to take place.

I’m pleased to say that the meeting got off to a great start. It was particularly pleasing to get so many of Richard’s former group members together, as well as people he had worked with, including Sir John Meurig Thomas, Tony Cheetham and Brian Fender. We even had a visit from Richard’s PhD supervisor, Alan Lidiard. The talks were excellent, and we had lots of good discussion. The accommodation and catering were both excellent.

All in all I was very pleased with the meeting, and pleased that everyone enjoyed it. You can find a collection of photos taken at the meeting here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/robajackson/albums/72157680516575331, and one of the conference photos is given below. I will also post the meeting programme on my website (www.robajackson.com) in due course.

My thoughts on the triggering of article 50

I haven’t posted about Brexit since my post of 10 July last year. Since then not a lot has happened; there’s been plenty of talk, but because we were (and still are) EU members, nothing of any consequence changed. But today article 50 is triggered, which sets us on the irrevocable road to leaving the EU.

I heard Nick Clegg speak on Radio 5 live this morning; not someone I’ve ever had much time for, but he does speak sense on the EU. He reminded us that the EU referendum was set up by David Cameron to deal with a rift in his party, rather than thinking about the national interest, and also expressed the view that I share, which is that many people’s vote for Brexit was a protest vote against many things, some of which had no connection with our EU membership. I covered this latter point in my post which is linked in the last paragraph.

If I think back to when we joined the (then) Common Market in 1973, I was 16, and politically aware enough (thanks to my parents), and I was very much in favour of us joining. Two years later, Harold Wilson called a referendum on our membership, and I remember wearing a ‘Keep Britain in Europe’ badge to school. Now I am probably coming to the last few years of my working life, and I do worry for the future of the United Kingdom outside the EU, especially if, as is likely, Scotland votes for independence in a few years time.

In terms of how leaving the EU will affect me job wise, I am concerned about the loss of EU research funding, and the effect on student mobility. Hopefully the negotiations that will start from tomorrow (presumably) will take these issues into account, but unfortunately I have no confidence that Theresa May and her team will give priority to these issues. All we can do is watch this space. To misquote Gloria Gaynor, we will survive, but our country will change, inevitably, and not necessarily for the better.


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