10 Nov

1985 H n P.jpg

Our daughter Polly was born on August 25th in 1982. Both her mother and she had a tough time of it, and an emergency caesarian was performed to save them. It was touch and go.

I brought Fiona, her mum and Polly home to our council flat on the eighth floor of Lingbeck Crescent, Moss Side, Manchester when they were well enough.

The only furniture we had was a mattress, a dining table and two chairs. I hadn’t a clue really. We washed the used terry towelling nappies by hand. When my dad dropped by  to see his first granddaughter he was horrified and immediately went out and bought us a washing machine.

My mother bought me an electric typewriter so I could finally write up my PhD thesis.

At the time Moss Side was a lawless place and the scene of rioting, looting, muggings and robbery – mostly controlled by gangs. I had done everything I could to turn the flat into a fortress, strengthening the external door frames with steel plate (our neighbour was a known drug dealer and drew far to many vulnerable and hostile people to his door).

One day when Polly was about 1 and I was at work helping to build a database at Manchester Museum two men tried to batter our flat door down…..

Mother and baby were at home.

Fiona lay against the front door bracing her feet against the wall, whilst holding baby Polly. They could not get in, thanks to her courage and to my reinforcements, but my little family was scared and very shaken up.

I found out where one of these individuals lived, so I went to confronted him. Huge mistake.

He was as high as a kite and, in his underpants proceeded curse me to hell and back and to throw what seemed like the entire contents of a kitchen drawer of knives at me. I dodged the missiles and as they sailed over the balcony, I beat a hasty retreat.

I vowed to get us the hell out of Moss Side as soon as possible.

I immediately started applying for all the jobs I could find which were

  • As far away from Manchester as possible
  • Suited my particular skill set (zoological research/experimental physiology/electron microscopy).

Within a month I had secured a post in Queen Mary College,  London. It came with subsidised accommodation in a beautiful run down Georgian Mansion in a pretty Essex Village called Coxtie Green. Dytchleys was an outpost of the University of London (botanical research, playing fields, ponds, Kingfisher by the pond etc.).

My family went from the ridiculous to the sublime as I shed my dreams of independent research to become a lab rat.

At Queen Mary College, University of London I was given the task of investigating termite guts by my new postdoctoral supervisor.

Here’s one of my drawings of the guts of a termite.

Zootermes gut.jpg

The thin wriggly tubes on the left are Malpighian tubules, the big sack in the middle is the paunch or hind gut where fermentation takes place. This was my new domain – termite guts.

In the experimental set up I developed (below) I am literally taking the piss…..A single Malpighian tubule sits in a bath of paraffin oil under the microscope (left), kept at optimum temperature by a water jacket. The end of the tubule is in a saline solution I developed to mimic termite blood, the other end is pumping out tiny droplets of urine. The rate and quality of urine can be determined, the content chemically analysed so that what flows into the paunch (fermentation chamber) can be determined.

Termite lab bench.jpg

I had to make most of the tools needed to perform these operations from heated glass rod, old fashioned blue razor blades and modified iridectomy scissors:

Dissecting tools termite physiology.jpg

My postdoctoral supervisor argued that a termite gut is just a simple fermentation chamber and as such depends upon fluid and nutrient input to produce a useful bi-product – volatile fatty acids in the case of termites.

He had secured the grant in order to investigate new ways to disrupt digestion in pest species of termites and, thereby control them.

After a few months of researching the problem in the lab I discussed the idea with my grandmother on a visit to The Hague and my Oma said:

“Bit of a stupid idea, Henk. When we were kids we used to kill termites by simply crushing them between forefinger and thumb.” (She lived for some years in the tropics).

After 2 years of staring at termite guts I admitted defeat. In that time I had worked out how termites Malpighian tubules work, and how this might link to the symbiotic microbiota living in the paunch.

We were no closer to a magic bullet for crop pest species.

There are plenty of conventional ways of killing insects pests – insecticides – which work best on plant surfaces above ground or as aerosols. Because termites spend most of their life under ground, they are very difficult to attack (unless you are an anteater or an ape with a tool, or an Oma).

A chap I visited in Berne, Switzerland, who supplied me with termites had grown an entire colony of Macrotermes in a big bin in his lab.

Macrotermes mound.jpg

He could ‘call out’ different castes of the colony by placing glass tunnels deep into the mound and putting forage at the end, in this way figuring out what was going on in the hidden labyrinth below. Genius.

I presented my findings to the funding body and my boss, and resigned my post. I could not in all conscience carry on with such an esoteric and ultimately pointless piece of work on such beautiful creatures.

Termites are too beautiful to subject them to the experimental physiology for a whim. Here are some benign little Zootermopsis minding their own business and eating rotten wood.


I designed this set of shelves in olive ash inspired by the wings of the termite alates I once studied.


The design incorporates 6 aerofoils frozen at the moment of shedding, fluttering to the ground.

Here are some termite alates.

Termite Alate.jpg

I like to think that shedding one’s wings can lead to unexpected, subterranean CV.

Research Scientist to Teacher to Cemetery Conservation Officer to Parks and Countryside Ranger to self employed Carpenter

Or as my friend Peter Craggs once said: “You’re the only person I know with a career in reverse”



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