A limerick a week #116

On retiring after 34 years at the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen…

I want to thank my colleagues at the Marine Laboratory for their good wishes and benevolence on my departure. Their generosity allowed me to buy an original art work that had taken my fancy at the Tolquhon Gallery’s Christmas exhibition; a work by Jim Wylie – something to bring a bit of summer into a winter’s gloom.

Calme d’été (oil on canvas)

…and here’s the limerick (a day earlier than usual):

A Cumbrian scientist called Phil
Counted fish with a consummate skill
But now, it’s transpired,
T’arl bugger’s retired
“Oh my Cod!”, he said, “Isn’t that Brill!”

Postscript: Really Making Waves

The question was, “Will you write an article about your time in the Lab for Making Waves? It can be as short or as long as you like?” Hmmm, I thought, why not? Making Waves is the Marine Scotland staff newsletter and it might be an amusing way to say ‘cheerio’ to the organisation.

Sadly, they could not use the piece that I wrote due to some slightly off-message words in the last couple of paragraphs.

I fully understand my Comms colleague’s reservations about it. After all Comms has to be on-message, even with internal communications. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that an organisation that claims to foster diversity feels it has to censor-by-omission those who are not good little functionaries within a mini-me clone-army of identikit on-message drones! (Confession: I’ve used parts of that phrase before; I rather like it.)

Anyway, you can read my article-that-never-was below…

Ave Atque Vale

As I am soon to leave the Marine Laboratory and meaningful employment, I was asked to contribute some thoughts to Making Waves about my years in the place: “It can be as short or long as you wish”, I was told. Well, they said it, not me, so, in the immortal words of the late Stanley Unwin: Are you sitting comfibold, two-square on your botty? Then I’ll begin. Once a polly tito…

The young me.

a young Cumbrian lad headed north. It seems a long time ago now, but I joined the Laboratory in early 1984. I used to tell folk that it was my ‘Orwellian’ year until Jo, my other half, pointed out that it was also the year that we were married and she’d rather I didn’t conflate that occasion with transcending into a police state. (Off topic: I also remember once (and only once!) referring to her as the wife – such was the opprobrium brought down on me by that comment that it marks the precise moment that I began to transition from a standard-issue Kendalian into the socially liberal, bit-of-a-lefty, woke pussycat that I am today. Nevertheless, it’s still a work in progress as earlier this year she was compelled to exhort “do you always have to be a typical, unreconstructed 1970s northern male?” Le mâle le plus au nord? C’est moi!)

Anyway, back on topic… due to the likelihood of some impending sea-going duties soon after I joined the Laboratory, I was obliged to tell the doctor at my Civil Service medical that I wasn’t allowed to swim due to an ear problem, and that I was also mildly red-green colour blind. He examined the offending ear and I remember his comment well: “Where are all the bits that should be in there?” So, that was diving duties off the list.

You see 74, I see 21.

He also tested my colour vision using the Ishihara colour plates. “What number do you see?” he asked. “21”, I replied.

Him: You’re kidding!
Me: Why, what do you see?
Him: 74!

At this point, the doctor ignored the rest of the medical and we spent about 30 minutes going through several of the colour plates, tracing-out whatever we could see and then trying to visualise the other’s perception of them. (A word of advice, never ask me to guide a vessel into harbour – those red and green leading lights look very alike to me!) Nevertheless, as medicals go it was a hoot and much more fun, I imagine, than the nitrile-clad digital insertion that seems to be the de rigueur medical of choice for blokes coming to the end of their working life.

So, with the medical out of the way I thought I should call the Laboratory and ask about its dress code. “Smart casual”, I was told, “sports jacket and tie, that sort of thing” and that’s how I ended up at Reception resplendent in some new and, for me, unusual attire. Auld Jimmy Grey was behind the desk and I told him I was a new start and asked to whom I should report. “Which Section?” asked Jimmy. “Pelagic” I replied. A few seconds passed then he looked on forlornly and said “Ah, tragic pelagic!”

Clearly, that was not an auspicious start, but colleagues who remember some of the Laboratory’s characters and their feuds in those days will understand Jimmy’s response. [Memo to managers: If colleagues have serious issues with each other it is not always a good idea to send them to sea together for three weeks in a confined space with cheap booze to hand.]

Anyway, after a week of being the only person in the Laboratory that wasn’t wearing jeans I resorted to my usual clobber of a pair of Levis and a fleece. A couple of years later, as Jo and I were standing at a bus stop ready to head off to our respective workplaces, she started chatting to my colleague, Isobel, who worked in the Laboratory’s office at that time. “Look at him” Jo said (herself resplendent in ‘proper’ attire) “and holes in his jeans too!” Isobel saved the day: “Oh, he’s one of the smarter ones, you should see Tony Hawkins, and he’s the Director[1]!”

In fact, Tony had just taken over as Director from Alasdair McIntyre whose retiral speech was memorable. Alasdair had talked about the different eras over which he had been associated with the Marine Laboratory

  • The immediate post-war years when staff got danger money for going to sea due to the number of mines that were still floating around;
  • The 1950s which comprised the true renaissance of fisheries research after the war;
  • The 1960s which was a decade of expansion and exciting new research;
  • The 1970s which was a period of consolidation;
  • Finally the 1980s and retrenchment.

In other words, the start of my career, my ‘good old days’, coincided with peak-Thatcher and all that implied for folk daft enough to work in the public sector in general and in science in particular. So never tell me that I view the past through rose-tinted spectacles! Just don’t!

Our science generated contract income back then just as now, but with a difference. In those days, there was contract income in accounts all over the place and there was real potential for the misuse of funds. Pretty soon, the Laboratory was told to get its act together and that all of its contract income had to be brought in-house into legal ‘suspense’ accounts.

So you can imagine my surprise when, a few months later, a cheque drawn on a Danish bank was handed to me by a senior scientist from the Danish Fisheries Institute in Charlottenlund to cover my T&S costs for attendance at an expert group at ICES HQ. Such had been the cutbacks during the 1980s that contract income was by then being used to pay for our core business activities. That payment had been authorised by my boss and when I later mentioned to him that I’d thought all contract funds were supposed to be in-house and not ‘in Denmark’, his reply was concise: “Who’s to know?”. That made it particularly amusing many years later when he was appointed to a senior post and insisted that all staff had to follow the corporate line to the letter. (He also asked my colleague, Nick, and me to do an anonymous 360° appraisal of him in which I jokingly commented that he was a ‘poacher-turned-gamekeeper’. To my delight, he blamed Nick for that!)

Returning to Tony’s tenure as Deputy Director and then as our Director, although he was not the easiest person to warm to, I owe him a great deal as it was the tasks that he set me that got me noticed. Not for him the formal bureaucracy of going through your line management to ask for something to be done. No, he just dragged you into his office and explained what he wanted. (You then did as he asked and reported on it to him, at which time you found out what he really wanted and so began over again.)

If, like me, you were only just starting out as a Scientific Officer (B1 in new money) it didn’t matter. Tony wanted to know if you would sink or swim. That is how I ended up supporting the late Roger Bailey, and later front-lining, when arguing with the RSPB over its interpretation of the Shetland sandeel fishery as a likely cause of the islands’ dramatic seabird-breeding failures of the 1980s. Roger and I had the temerity to argue that the fishery was not the cause of the seabirds’ problems, but that it was itself impacted by the same broader environmental drivers that were affecting the production of young sandeels. It got pretty brutal in the media and, in my opinion, the RSPB with its million-plus membership tried unfairly to destroy Roger’s professional reputation. Fortunately, a young Peter Wright was then contracted under consortium funding and his research backed our version of events.

At the same time as this was going on, a skipper from the Clyde was launching harpoons at basking sharks, much to the disdain of the public and conservationists alike. Tony put me on the case and it resulted in the publication that I am probably best known for, a Scottish Fisheries Information Pamphlet on the basking shark. It was damned by some at the time because it did not fully support their perception – or prejudices – about the threat the fishery posed to the basking shark population, but it was sound and has stood the test of time. It got me on Channel Four’s Fragile Earth series and the BBC2 Nature programme fronted by Michael Buerk, famous for his ‘Ethiopian famine’ reports of the 1980s, as well as on national radio.

The media interviews I faced were always hostile because I refused to countenance the views of the Marine Conservation Society. Nevertheless, I was shown to be right by David Sims’ subsequent basking shark research at the MBA’s Plymouth Laboratory. That’s all a while ago now, but recently I wrote an article about my basking shark ‘era’ for Making Waves. Unfortunately, it was spiked due to some dodgy humour at the end of the piece. I had no problem with that decision as I’d anticipated it, but, if you’re interested, you can read it here instead.

After the media-frenzy of the 1980s I then progressed into demersal fish stock assessment and fisheries advisory work where a part of this was concerned with the Laboratory’s ‘Ecuador Project’ – an institutional link with the Instituto Nacional de Pesca, Guayaquil (INP); a contract that was funded by the UK’s Overseas Development Administration. The aim of the project was to help develop the INP’s capacity as a fisheries research organisation. Consequently, our participation included experts in organisation & management, information technology and librarianship as well as fisheries scientists.

I visited the country half a dozen times and have mixed memories of it. One image that has stayed with me was of a young shoe-shine boy. He was probably eight or nine years old, and I’d seen him work his heart out over a few hours until, eventually, he had a chance to sit and quietly enjoy an ice-cream that he’d just bought. Finally, and for ten minutes, he was allowed to be a child again. It was all a bit of an eye-opener. My eyes were opened further by the sight of teenagers employed as shop-front security guards armed with shotguns. It was no coincidence that South American guidebooks considered Guayaquil to be low down the list of places for a tourist to see, although in all honesty I don’t think we ever felt threatened and we were treated most hospitably.

The INP always seemed to have a new Director when we visited and the formalities of arriving and being greeted by him (it was always a ‘him’) took an age, with us receiving a host of unctuous compliments and having to return them with interest. I once apologised to my colleague Stuart, with whom I travelled on a number of my visits to the INP, for all the bulls**t I’d had to spout. “Don’t worry”, he said, “You’re good at it”. I’m still not sure, but I think it was a compliment.

Stuart and I had always hoped to piggyback a trip to the Galapagos Islands on the back of one of our Ecuadorian forays, but by the end of a two-week trip to the INP we just wanted to get home. As foreigners, it was also just as expensive to travel to the Islands from Guayaquil as it was to visit them from the UK. We did get to visit the Isla de la Plata (the poor man’s Galapagos) just offshore from the Ecuadorian mainland where I first saw a pair of boobies and some nesting albatrosses. Not quite the Galapagos, but at least a non-birder like me had a couple of ‘ticks’ that would be the envy of many a ‘twitcher’.

Returning to my day job, I tried hard to be a science-led-but-pragmatic adviser and, from the response of the policy leads of the day and my national and international science colleagues, I succeeded and did so without compromising the Laboratory’s reputation. That period also included my tenure on the ICES Advisory Committee on Fisheries Management on which I argued strongly to close the fisheries for cod in the North Sea and to the west of Scotland. That advice certainly unleashed Hell, but it saved the stocks from commercial extirpation.

It was controversial advice and bitter medicine as far as the fishing industry was concerned (and not exactly welcomed by Ministers either), but a deluge of ‘independent’ reports later backed the science, including one from the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (PMSU). In all, five such reports vindicated the science and the PMSU approach was a shining example of how such reviews should be carried out – as well as being truly independent, its authors established a ‘challenge group’ to question their approach, their methods and their conclusions; it remains the most authoritative report of its kind that I’ve ever seen.

If only the Royal Society of Edinburgh had done likewise in its subsequent review! Theirs was the sixth with which we’d had to contend after the cod closures and its commentary on our science was hugely irritating. Being good little civil servants, we weren’t allowed publicly to challenge the more egregious elements of its report and, on that occasion, such a restriction rested uneasily with me. Moreover, our then Minister was in hospital when the RSE’s report was published and, to my dismay, his deputy publicly welcomed a ‘well-researched’ report, while writing privately to the RSE to condemn its inaccuracies.

The inability to argue our case publicly coupled to that kind of disingenuous ministerial behaviour led me to throw all of my toys out of the pram and move on from fish stock assessment and advisory work. Which is how I ended up wrestling with DG MARE’s Data Collection Regulation (DCF). I’ll say nothing more about that other than if Marine Scotland wants increasingly to source contract income and to manage such contracts efficiently, then it really does need to develop a proper contract support office rather than the ad-hockery that currently exists.

Shortly after taking on responsibility for the DCF, my Group and I were ejected from the Laboratory’s Fish Team and placed in the Science Operations Programme (SciOps). SciOps was managed by Carey and populated at Group Leader level solely by blokes. We got the work done, but also had a few laughs along the way, including at Group Leader meetings that, at times, resembled an homage to the consumer and current affairs TV show, That’s Life, with Carey as Esther Rantzen surrounded by a coterie of deferential male acolytes.

After a couple of years and with the support of Carey and several others within the Programme, we initiated the SciOps Coffee Club that ran every six weeks or so, for about 12 editions. At each meeting, a couple of volunteers showed two or three short YouTube videos that illustrated something about themselves and their interests, but without them having to speak at length to the audience (we called it MeTube). It worked well and it was fun. We also included a ‘Traybake of the Month’ competition in which anyone that fancied it could try their hand at whatever comestible had been nominated for that occasion.

The winners from each event were later celebrated in The Compleat Baker, a publication of which I am proud and one that is fully illustrated by the posters that accompanied the events. I love the fact that some of the posters bear witness to my colleagues’ willingness to dress-up, or undress in the case of one, and then be photographed (in the days of Photoshop and Facebook) without any knowledge of the use to which their pictures were to be put. How trusting was that!

That leads me more generally to the work of my colleagues and the support and help that they have provided across the years. I don’t just mean my science colleagues, but also the other professionals and support staff that sustain our science. Almost without fail (but only ‘almost’!) everyone that has helped me has gone the extra mile when necessary, right through from my days as ‘the next big thing’ to my spell as an ‘assessment-jockey’ and then to me being ‘DCF supremo’ before finally ending up as a ‘jaded has-been’. MSS has many unheralded staff that carry out a lot of unheralded work. More light needs to be shone on that.

So, has it all been worth it or should I have stuck to my pre-university job as a forestry labourer in the English Lake District or my student vacation job as a snuff grinder in Kendal?

Well, “Yes” it has been worth it – mostly. I despair at times that we are more greatly valued by colleagues outside of the Scottish Government (or even outside Scotland and the rest of the UK) rather than by those within it. It wasn’t always like that and it needs more than a simple lip-service remedy to re-set it. I am also concerned by the erosion of our scientific independence. The report of the Independent Panel that was commissioned by Richard Lochhead when he was our Minister had a lot of wise words to say about that as an issue and the steps that could and should (but haven’t) been taken to address it. It needs to be revisited. Urgently.

The not-so-young me.

Finally, have I any advice to give to anyone just starting out? Of course I do, I’ve become avuncular with age! I’ve often reflected on some sagely advice that I was given by Peter Winterbottom, an official with MAFF (now DEFRA), during my first-ever EU-Norway negotiation. I’d turned to him at some point and said, “Peter, I don’t believe this”. His reply was succinct and it’s helped me greatly over the past two decades, especially the last one, so I hope it helps you too: “Phil”, he said, “sometimes the first thing you have to do is to suspend belief and the second thing you do is to suspend disbelief”.


[1] From the days of DAFS to SEERAD, the head of the Marine and Freshwater Labs was their Director; that would be the Head of Science in current parlance. (FRS had a Chief Executive).

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😎 Former scientist, now graduated to a life of leisure; Family man (which may surprise the family - it certainly surprises him); Likes cycling and old-fashioned B&W film photography; Dislikes greasy-pole-climbing 'yes men'; Thinks Afterlife (previously known as Thea Gilmore) should be much better known than she is; Values decency over achievement.

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