The EU Referendum: a month to go

With a month to go before the EU Referendum, I thought it would be timely to write a quick post about why it is so important to me that we vote to remain. So, if someone asked me why I think this, these are the three points I would make:

(i) from the point of view of the UK as a whole, being part of the single market is essential for our future prosperity. If we left the EU we might be able to negotiate joining it, but at a cost, and we would not be in a position to influence any decisions made by member states.

(ii) the free movement of people between countries in the EU is particularly important for education and research in the UK. Our students can spend valuable periods of time at universities in EU countries, as can teachers and lecturers, and we can conversely benefit from the equivalent people from the rest of the EU spending time in the UK. This is very important for the education sector, and has knock-on effects in terms of creating and maintaining an internationally minded workforce.

(iii) all member states of the EU contribute to a research fund, and the funds are allocated to universities, research institutions and companies by a competitive application process. The UK does very well out of this, getting more out of it than it puts in. So much important research is funded from EU research grants, and if we left, we would lose this source of funding unless we negotiated to join the scheme from outside, which would involve extra cost and potentially less favourable terms.

There are plenty of other reasons to remain, but these are my main ones. Unfortunately the debate over the referendum has descended into a mud-slinging match between opposing sides, and there is the danger that some people might be put off voting at all. I will continue to try to put a positive spin on the case to remain in the EU, and hope others will do the same!

30 years at Keele: May 1986 – May 2016

An occasion like this deserves documenting, and in the end it rather crept up on me. I knew it was coming, but with the last 3 weeks of April being so busy, I was distracted, and in the end it was thanks to a Facebook reminder that I remembered.

So, how did I, a confirmed Londoner, end up here? Well, back in 1986 I was coming to the end of a 2 year postdoctoral contract at Birkbeck College, and my previous postdoctoral supervisor, Richard Catlow had moved from UCL to Keele the previous year (he had been invited by Brian Fender, who had also recently moved to Keele as Vice Chancellor, and who knew him from their Oxford days). Richard had a postdoctoral research fellowship available that was funded by Shell, and he invited me to apply for it. It was concerned with modelling zeolites, and I had some relevant experience from my Birkbeck post, so I was qualified for the fellowship and was offered it. That saw me travel to Keele on 1 May 1986 to start my contract. In preparing this post I have looked at my rather brief diary entries from the time, which have reminded me that my early weeks at Keele consisted of a lot of travelling, initially back to London and my mother’s house in Suffolk to collect some furniture and other things, but also to Amsterdam to visit my new sponsors at the Shell labs.

My initial contract at Keele was for 2 years, and I was quite sure it wouldn’t extend beyond that time. For one thing, at the time I wanted to get back to London, and then there was the unlikeliness of the contract being renewed, or of something else coming up at Keele. How wrong I proved to be! The first thing that happened was that Richard Catlow ingeniously devised a new position for me to apply for when my Shell contract came to an end. It was partly funded by Kodak, to work on some particular materials they were interested in at the time, and partly by Keele, to set up some short courses in topics like X-ray diffraction, and it was another 2 year post. I applied and was appointed, and started the new position in April 1988. It was designated as a lectureship, and I did have some teaching as well as the other responsibilities. The short courses were planned, but never really got off the ground. However, my work with Kodak was interesting, involving a month at their labs in Rochester, NY, working with Roger Baetzold. Then, in 1989, Richard moved back to London, to the Royal Institution. Although there was the possibility of me going with him, I had become established at Keele, and while my post wasn’t permanent at the time, things looked promising. So I stayed put, and once the short courses/Kodak contract finished, I was taken on to the permanent staff as a Lecturer, probably in 1990. I then worked my way up the career ladder, getting promotions to Senior Lecturer in 1996 and Reader in 2000.

So what have been the highlights of the past 30 years?

– In the 1990s it was probably organising the Eurodim conference (European Conference on Defects in Insulating Materials) at Keele (in 1998). I was only asked to do this in 1994 when attending the previous conference in the series (in Lyon, where I am going in a couple of months!) It was well-attended and very successful.

– In the 2000s, when our Chemistry course at Keele came under fire from the senior management, I got involved in our Forensic Science course (teaching Arson and Ballistics), and have taught on it since its start in the middle of the decade. I note in passing that next year we will introduce a Single Honours version of the course, and I am once again involved in developing a new module, this time on Digital Forensics.  I should also add that Chemistry survived, and is thriving now.

– The decade beginning in 2010 has seen me take on roles like Senior Tutor for the School (Physical and Geographical Sciences), Internationalisation Director to the School (to help coordinate Keele’s drive to increase the number of international links and to internationalise its curriculum), and I’ve been asked to sit on various committees dealing with Appeals and Academic Misconduct, where no doubt my longevity at Keele is seen as an asset!

Moving into my fourth decade at the University, I see my main challenge as keeping my research going in an increasingly difficult and challenging funding climate. Looking back to when I started my career, there was a more level playing field for all universities in the UK, and funding for PhD students could be obtained without being part of a larger group of institutions, which is what is required now. But I will push on. There will be new teaching challenges as well (I mentioned Digital Forensics earlier), as well as contributions to our MChem course. But in conclusion, considering I only came here on a temporary contract, it has been a good and fulfilling 30 years. I would also like to mention my wife Angela, who I met at Keele, and who has given me so much help, support and encouragement over the years.

LibDem Spring Conference 2016: reflections

This was not just my first LibDem conference, but my first political conference. Hence I approached it with some anticipation and some nerves, if I’m honest! It was held in York, and I hadn’t been there for a few years, so I looked forward to renewing my acquaintance with a lovely city which had suffered badly in flooding earlier this year.

I stayed in the Hilton Hotel, partly because the fringe session I was helping to run was to be held there, but also because of getting a good rate by advance booking. It was as comfortable as expected, and located 10 minutes or so from the York Barbican, where the main sessions were to be held.

My feelings on arrival at the conference on the Friday night for the opening events can be summed up by confusion and being somewhat lost. I knew no-one, and at that point I hadn’t even met my session co-organiser! So I waited, had a glass of questionable white wine in the welcome reception, and eventually got a text from my session co-organiser to say he had arrived and was leafletting for our event outside. So I went outside and joined him, and was handing out leaflets within an hour of arrival! A baptism of fire, but I was glad to be doing something useful. There was plenty of interest in our event, which was a good sign.

When the time came for the Opening Rally, I went back into the convention centre and took my seat. It was good to hear Catherine Bearder speak on the INtogether campaign, and to hear Tim Farron’s passionate speech. I was less impressed by the inclusion of a junior hospital doctor who had just joined the party. OK, she made a good speech, championing her cause, but I did feel as if it was slightly a case of the LibDems jumping on the band wagon here. But overall the rally was a good way to get the conference ‘warmed up’, and I left on a positive note.

The following morning, Saturday, I made an early start to get to the convention centre to do more leafletting for our event, due to be held at lunchtime. I tweeted that there was some irony in that my fellow ‘leafleteers’ were from Friends of the Earth (anti-fracking), and Republic! (See

However we continued to get plenty of interest in our event, and when we stopped at about 11:00, we felt that we had certainly publicised the event as much as we could. After a much-needed coffee, it was time to go to the Hilton to set up for our event. The room we had been allocated was small and cosy, but we felt that a small full room would be preferable to a larger one with spaces!

Our event went well. After an introduction from Julie Smith, Roger Liddle started proceedings. He is a Labour Lord, but originally an SDP member. He was followed by Vince Cable, who has in his time been a Labour, SDP and Liberal Democrat member, and held an influential ministerial role in the coalition government of 2010-2015. I won’t attempt to discuss the content of their speeches, but they both talked about what was necessary for the centre-left to regain influence, and their talks were both interesting and inspiring. You can hear them both here.

Following our event, we had our first Social Democrat Group committee meeting, which was useful, mainly to meet people and find out their views of what the group should do in future.

After a brief trip to the Exhibition, which was busy and rather cramped, I returned to the hotel, and in the evening visited some interesting hostelries in York City Centre (as mentioned on Twitter and Facebook at the time).

On Sunday morning after breakfast I had a final trip to the York Barbican, and then headed back to the station and home. It had been an interesting experience, and probably certainly not my last LibDem party conference!

Mame recollections: Jan-Feb 2016

Playing in Mame was such an extraordinary experience, for so many reasons, that I decided to write a blog post about it.

I hadn’t played for Stephen Hearson in one of his shows for many years. I thought it was 20 (maybe it was 15) but it was certainly a long time. He had asked me a few times in the intervening years, but I was never able to commit to the time required.

On 20th January in the morning I received a FB message from Stephen asking me if I could play in his forthcoming production of Mame at the Stoke Repertory Theatre. I was immediately tempted because my recent orchestral playing had been unfulfilling, and both my regular orchestras didn’t need me for their spring concerts. And, wonder of wonders, I was free for all the dates! So I agreed, and arranged to collect the music on 25 January.

I was seriously out of practice, so I immediately started a regime, with mouthpiece buzzing, long notes, scales and, eventually, looking at the music itself. I was able to practise using my Silent Brass system (which developed a fault towards the start of the shows, but that’s another story). By the time of the first band call, on the Thursday before the show started (18th February), I was in reasonable shape, playing wise. But the music was hard and the first trombone part very high! So at the band call I alternated between the first and third parts, and since there seemed to be a need for more bass, in the performances I mainly played the third part. The real challenge was playing loud enough for a section of 3. However even if other players had been available, they wouldn’t have fitted into the pit! I must also pay tribute to our conductor, Joe Hearson, who did a fantastic job, not helped by not having a full score to conduct from.

But how do you survive a normal week of work, with a show every evening? It was gruelling to say the least. Fortunately the weather held, so my drives to the theatre (a bit further than Stoke station/Staffordshire University, 6 miles or so each way) were relatively easy, although as the week went by I found myself getting there earlier each day! The show started at 7:15 pm and finished at 10:15 pm, and I was getting home at about 10:45 pm most days. I can’t eat much before playing, so I would typically have a protein bar before the show, a coke zero or diet coke in the interval, and a late dinner when I got home. This seemed to work well, and I’m very grateful to Angela for coping admirable with my strange eating schedule!

On the Saturday of the week the shows were running (23-27 February), we did a matinee as well as an evening show. For a physically demanding instrument like the trombone, that was quite an ordeal. But I got through it somehow.

Playing in Mame had the effect of getting me back into regular playing, and also thanks to someone who was at one of the performances, I was asked to join the North Staffs Symphony Orchestra, which I’ve been trying to join for nearly 30 years!

Contrasting political experiences

Since joining the LibDems in July 2015, I’ve got involved in two distinct but very contrasting activities.

One activity I’ve posted quite a lot about is my helping to set up the Social Democrat Group, with George Kendall. This is really beginning to develop some momentum (a rather politically loaded word at the moment!), with a fringe meeting scheduled at the Spring Conference which has the possibility of some high-level speakers (although none are confirmed yet).

The second activity is my post as Social Media Officer for my local party in Newcastle, Staffs. This is exposing me to local politics, which is something new to me. In my Labour years I concentrated on national politics but took little notice of the local scene. That has all changed now, with the local council having to make difficult decisions, and local elections only three months away. I have a steep learning curve to climb. With the local print media and radio ignoring us, making an impact on Social Media is very important. Probably the most challenging part of the job is accessing the information in the first place! But our Twitter and Facebook followers are steadily increasing, so hopefully I’m doing something right!

January 2016

OK, that’s not a very imaginative title, but although it’s hard to believe, we are almost at the end of the first month of 2016. Time perhaps to reflect on what has been achieved (or not) so far this year!

As far as my work is concerned, we had two weeks of exams starting 11 January, and our second semester is now a week old. I’ve taught nearly half of my X-ray diffraction course and got my projects up and running again. Next week sees the conclusion of the XRD lectures, final year project presentations and, for good measure, an MPhil viva!

Musical activities didn’t look promising at the start of the year , with two of my orchestras not requiring heavy brass, but then my old friend Stephen Hearson asked me to play for him in his forthcoming production of Mame. I’m really excited about that; it will be challenging but a lot of fun.

Politics has been up and down. I’m going to the LibDem spring conference, where the Social Democrat Group is organising a meeting, which will be our first. Locally things don’t look good for the LibDems, following a controversial and (in my opinion) misguided vote in favour of selling the Keele golf course. It won’t endear us to local voters, and pretty much ends our chances of regaining a council seat in May.

Today I’m at the Odeon Cinema in Festival Park, Hanley, to see The Fifth Wave. We are regarding this as a belated birthday film for me, and I’m hoping it will be good!

Chemistry, Academia, Travel, Technology, Politics and Music


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