Some personal reminiscences of Gurnos Jones

This post was originally written following Gurnos’s death on 3 June 2016, in response to a request for reminiscences. As far as I know it has not been published elsewhere, so I am posting it here as a more permanent record.Jones_Gurnos 90x90

I started my career at Keele in May 1986, some 30 years ago. Initially I was a postdoc in Richard Catlow’s group, but I joined the academic staff as a lecturer in 1988. Gurnos was on my interview panel as Head of Department, along with Brian Fender (Vice-chancellor at the time), and Gurnos appointed me, and was my first Head of Department.

My main recollections of Gurnos as Head of Department are that he was firm in his decision making, but always fair. We had regular staff meetings (far more than we do now), and because we were a small but nevertheless independent department, we were responsible for a lot of decisions that are now made at a higher level. For example, I remember when Biology proposed the Biochemical Engineering degree (which incidentally is still very popular) we discussed whether Chemistry should be involved, and decided against it. A decision like that would now be out of our hands!

The first job Gurnos asked me to do was to run the 2nd year Physical Chemistry Lab. As a non-experimental computational chemist this was a challenge, but Gurnos had the view that as a chemist I should be able to do it. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and the main thing I remember was that students wrote their reports in hard backed lab books, and so carrying large piles of these back to my office, or even home, to mark, was a regular experience. I also became 2nd year tutor, taking over from Andy Fitch when he moved to the ESRF in France. In those days the administrative structure of the department was much simpler: there was Gurnos as Head, and Year Tutors. Students were also allocated tutors in the department (this was long before the University started the present Personal Tutor system).

Most of my lecturing in those days was done in the main Chemistry lecture theatre, which we had almost exclusive use of. The old department office was next to this lecture theatre, and there was a door from the office into the lecture theatre, which made a dramatic entrance from the lecturer a possibility!

My main social recollection of Gurnos was his famous pancake parties, which I was invited to once I had joined the academic staff. They were gatherings of the great and good, and I remember talking to some quite senior university staff there in the informal setting of Gurnos and Pat’s house in Larchwood.

In the present environment things are so different that it is difficult to think that a small department like Chemistry could survive. But Gurnos was a good head, and steered us through some difficult times. I will always remember him with fondness and respect.

ICDIM2016 – a personal perspective

ICDIM2016 was held in Lyon from 10-15 July 2016. It was organised by Christophe Dujardin and his team. It was the 8th ICDIM meeting I had attended since 1984 and the 16th meeting I had attended in the joint EURODIM/ICDIM series in total.

I travelled to Lyon by Eurostar from St Pancras. It was a seamless journey and the train arrived early. It was nice to have Mário’s company on the trip; he had spent the previous week working with me, which was something we had tried to arrange several times in recent years, and this time it worked!

The conference itself was well-organised. I had some minor gripes about the length of the talks (contributed talks had 15 minute slots (too short), and invited talks had 1 hour slots (too long)), but otherwise I had no complaints. The chairs generally did a good job, helped by a timer that counted down the time for each talk and was clearly visible! Most of the talks were recorded, and I will add a link here when it is made available.

The science discussed was good and of a high standard, showing that there is still a place for a conference of this kind with a relatively wide remit which now includes materials closer to semiconductors in their properties, while still mainly covering insulating materials. Battery materials, fuel cell materials and old stalwarts like LiNbO3 all had coverage. I talked on dopants in SrAl2O4, inspired by a talk by Philippe Smet given at EURODIM2014 in Canterbury. I did my best in the time available, but 10 minutes is really challenging! However, it was useful to discuss my work with Philippe and others following the talk. Mário and I also presented posters on the work performed by Giordano Bispo while at Keele, and our suggested new method for analysing EXAFS spectra of doped materials (in this case, Zn doped LiNbO3).

The organisers tried hard to include lots of social functions, and there was some kind of event every night. This certainly helped with networking, and I spoke to everyone I needed to. The conference dinner was on a boat (moored, I should add), and we had an excellent tour of old Lyon. We were in Lyon on 14 July, so were able to experience the Bastille Day celebrations, including a short but spectacular fireworks display.

The return journey on Eurostar was good, except that because there is no passport control at Lyon, we had to get off at Lille and go through security and immigration there. This worked OK, but I do wonder if there may be a better way!

Finally, at the conference I was given responsibility as International Advisory Committee Chair for the next few EURODIM conferences, and my first task is to sort out the location of EURODIM2018. This is going to be interesting, but I will report on it separately!

Brexit thoughts

It’s ironic that I should be sitting here in Lyon writing this. I’ve been too upset and horrified by the Brexit vote to write anything in the 2+ weeks since the vote. But travel enables one to be slightly detached, and now I feel able to say a few words.

First, it is clear that the vote was mostly not about our EU membership, but it was a protest against many people’s perception of how life had become for them, and who was to blame for what they saw as negative changes. The government, in fact the past few governments, should take a share of the blame. Under-investment in social housing and infrastructure has meant that immigration has put a strain on  local resources in some parts of the country, while much of our press has continually put out the message that the EU is responsible for immigration (in spite of the fact that, as I mentioned in a previous post, most EU immigrants get well-paid jobs and contribute to the economy through taxation). Then there was the nonsense about the mythical money that could go to the NHS if we left the EU, and scaremongering about Turkey joining (which won’t happen for years if at all).

Second, the government has made it quite clear that it will respect the verdict of the referendum. There will be no second referendum, in spite of the widely supported petition. We are where we are, and have to move forward as best as we can.

My greatest concerns are those that affect my work, namely what will replace EU research funding, and will free movement of staff and students within the EU be adversely affected. I have discussed these concerns at length before.

One thing is clear, and that is that nothing will happen for some time. Until we have a new Prime Minister, the exit and negotiation process cannot even begin. And Labour’s likely split is not helping as we have no effective opposition either. We just have to sit tight and see what happens. Writing this in Lyon naturally makes one think about the possibility of moving to an EU country. But attractive though that sounds in theory, it’s simply not a practical proposition. We live in worrying times.

Are we sleep walking ourselves to Brexit?

When I wrote this back in December 2015 it was in the spirit of a ‘worst case scenario’. Sadly, how true it turned out to be ):

Rob Jackson's Blog

As far as I am concerned, there is no question that the UK should remain an EU member, for a multitude of reasons. These include trade, security, freedom of movement as well as educational opportunities and research funding. And I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this.

Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate the terms of our EU membership are both unnecessary and doomed to failure. The only reason he’s doing this is to pacify the right wing of his own party (and to minimise the threat from UKIP), but he won’t achieve enough ‘concessions’ to change their mindsets. Added to this is the undoubted effect of the Murdoch press.

The worry is that many of the benefits of our membership are not understood or appreciated by a majority of the electorate. Instead they will respond to Cameron’s likely failed negotiations and the screaming newspaper headlines by voting No. And before we…

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Some final words on the EU Referendum

Well, we’re almost there, folks! After weeks of campaigning, finally we will vote tomorrow.

As the weeks have progressed, I’ve had times of feeling negative (e.g. see my last post), and times when I have felt that things may be going the way of the Remain camp. But to be perfectly honest, now I just don’t know.

As others have commented, the No camp have been tapping into a kind of resentment of authority and experts that seems to have been simmering below the surface for several years now. There have been plenty of theories expounded of where this resentment has come from, and I won’t add to these except to say that successive governments have avoided having a proper national conversation about contentious topics like immigration. Had these been held, more people might realise, for example, that immigrants are not to blame for job losses, or strains on local housing/schools.  They might appreciate that in the vast majority of cases, they are doing important jobs, which for various reasons are not filled by local residents, and that it is the fault of succesive governments for not providing finance to provide the necessary infrastructure to support them. But these national conversations have not been had, and the resentment has built up. It will be very unfortunate if the vote is for a Brexit partly as a result of this.

I don’t need to list again my reasons for supporting Remain. Apart from the economy, justice, and freedom of movement, there are the very serious consequences for universities (research funding and teaching cooperation) that would result from a Brexit.

All I can do now, in closing, is to hope for the best outcome on Friday morning. The No campaign have been very vocal, but I know that there are many who support Remain. It’s very difficult to judge, and after the 2015 election, opinion polls have lost their kudos somewhat.

Here’s hoping that we are still #INtogether on Friday.

Brexit contingencies and coping strategies

As I’m sure you’ll know from my FB and Twitter feeds (if you read them), as well as a previous blog post, I’m going all out for a vote for the UK to remain in the EU. At this point, with less than 3 weeks to go to the referendum, the leave camp are capitalising on the immigration question, using largely inaccurate and misleading data, but getting a lot of publicity in the process. The vote will undoubtedly be close, and I still believe remain will win the argument. But suppose we don’t, and we wake up on 24 June to a Brexit result?

I’ve been discussing with family and a close colleague what we will do if this happens. There will be the amusing spectacle of the Tories tearing themselves apart, but that will be something of a pyrrhic victory. But what of the other consequences?

First, David Cameron may either just resign, or a leadership election may be forced, which might result in Boris Johnson becoming PM. Second, the Brexit result could lead to the SNP demanding another Scottish Independence Referendum, and winning it, thus breaking up the UK. These are terrible consequences, but they could happen.

By facing these worst case scenarios now, I am trying to prepare myself for the worst possible outcome. By doing so, this is my coping strategy for the future. This might avoid what happened after the last General Election, where I was totally unprepared for the result, and the seismic shock waves it produced.

Of course, if the worst happens, those of us who are unhappy with the result will have to regroup. It might just force a realignment of some political parties (not just the Tories), but this is a high price to pay for such a change.

Having said all that, I’m still trying to stay positive!

CAMRA’s Revitalisation Consultation exercise: the view of a long-time member

CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) is currently indulging itself in a navel-gazing exercise that it has called its ‘Revitalisation Consultation’.  You can read all about it here if you’re interested. Meetings are being held all over the country with the aim of consulting members about what they think of the organisation, where it’s at, and what it should be doing.

I attended one of these meetings last night, at the White Star pub in Stoke-on-Trent. It’s a Titanic pub, and not one I had been to for nearly 4 years. It had certainly improved a lot since my last visit, and for the record, the Raspberry Wheat was sumptuous.  The meeting itself lasted 2 hours with a beer/comfort break. There was a good discussion, led by Michael Hardman, a founding father of CAMRA, assisted by CAMRA staff. It was a ‘good’ discussion in that lots of points were raised, but there was plenty of nonsense in the mix. The meeting used clickers to record peoples votes, and that worked well. Maybe I should reconsider using them in my teaching?

But, at the end of the day, is this consultation necessary? In my view CAMRA still needs to carry on much as it is. Yes, it should update its communication with members, improve use of social media etc. But as someone who joined in the late 70s (1977 or 1978), my view is that no, the battle for real ale has not been won. Just because it is so widely available in so many pubs doesn’t mean we can be complacent. And what about the ‘craft ale – craft keg’ debate? Well, I posted about that very topic last year; you can read my thoughts here. My conclusions still stand. CAMRA should not accept craft keg – it doesn’t matter how ‘interesting’ it is, or if it is made by a self-styled craft brewer. At the end of the day, keg is keg!

Of course, there was a lot more to the consultation than this. We discussed pubs, beer prices, and the detrimental effect of supermarkets. These all affect beer drinkers, I agree. But I firmly believe CAMRA should not change fundamentally.  We will see what happens in the coming months – the exercise has some time to go, and then any recommendations will be considered by the executive, and finally voted on at the AGM in April 2017. I will attend if I can, because I am concerned that long term members like myself should not be ignored in the quest for progress.  As with so many other things, we live in a time of change!

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