Tag Archives: France

Pick and mix 2 – more eclectic links

Ten more links to peruse or not.

Not just British hedgehogs, but French hedgehogs are also on the decline

If you are a lover of Wisteria then this is definitely for you

A very thoughtful piece from Terry McGlynn on the ethical and moral stances that scientists take

Here is a report of a workshop run by an ex-PhD student of mine to discuss the future of farming insects for food in the UK

A really interesting paper describing how competition between two parasitic wasps can be influenced by the presence of an endosymbiont

Here is a paper of great relevance to farmers and policy makers but as usual has been published in a high impact journal that farmers and agronomists won’t read; as scientists we have to be more open to publishing in ‘lower scientific impact’ venues but that have a high impact in the real world

BioMed Central highlighting ways in which food crops might be protected against drought caused by climate change

According to Sir John Marsh the future of the countryside depends on economics

Chris Sandbrook asks what is meant by biodiversity in a conservation context

Like Manu Saunders I am a great believer in having others read my papers before submission, their chances of getting through the peer review process relatively unscathed are much improved

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Creating space

Don’t worry,this is not an article about home improvement 🙂 I am one of those people, probably like many of you, that needs the right ambiance to be able to sit at my computer and produce deathless prose. Despite owning a laptop I am not able to write anywhere and any-when, the creative juices only seem to flow when I am surrounded by a suitable amount of office clutter.

Desk

So when at work but travelling, and even if equipped with my lap top, I find myself unable to write on the train or ferry, be it papers, books or blog posts. Although I can read papers or theses, or mark essays, I am unable to write the reviews or comments; I apparently need to be sat at an ‘office’ table/desk, with plenty of paperwork to hand.

As I write this, I am on holiday in our future retirement house in Vinca in the Languedoc-Roussillon, France.  At the moment, our French house is somewhat devoid of furniture, although the previous owner left behind several rooms full of clutter, including unopened DVDs of Jean Paul II and an armoire full of French versions of Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin et alia.

Armoire

As you can see, my office to be is nowhere near to being a suitable working environment yet,

future office

although as I have mentioned earlier, the view is fantastic.

View

My current working space is in what we are jokingly calling the “Versailles Salon”

Workspace Vinca

and means that I am working standing up, great for emails and checking Twitter, but not ideal for someone with a bad knee and somewhat footsore from all the walking we have done on holiday so far 🙂

Although I am on holiday I feel a certain amount of self-inflicted pressure (guilt) about my blog schedule, a new post about every twelve days and so I stupidly promised myself that I would stick to this schedule despite being away from my desk. I even half-prepared a post on insects in horror films, hoping that I would be able to polish it off in between beers, walks in the hills, glasses of wine and dips in the swimming pool. As you may have guessed this did not work, hence the post that you are reading now. Big Bugs in Horror Movies will have to wait a few more weeks for its release 🙂

The sun is shining and the pool is a shimmering blue, and although we are temporarily cut off from the rest of France by a rather large scrub fire, I feel somewhat more relaxed having at least written something, albeit rather lacking in entomological content.

Fires near Vinca

I am on holiday after all 🙂

 

A bientot a

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Can hawkmoths remember being attacked?

As our summer holidays are usually in the south of France or Italy I expect to see a plethora of insects whilst sitting on a sun-lit patio with a glass of wine or beer to hand. I am rarely disappointed, this year (2015) swallowtails being very common. Also present, although not as abundant as I have seen in some years, was the European hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, perhaps my favourite moth. Given that they were foraging so close to my watering hole, it seemed a great opportunity to use my new camera. I was able to capture images of the swallowtails, who obligingly remained still at the crucial moment I took the picture.

Swallowtail

Swallowtail butterfly, Super-las-Illas, France, August 2015

I was however, unable to get a decent still shot of the hawkmoths so had to resort to the video mode.

Hawkmoth

Hummingbird hawkmoth, Super-las-Illas, France, August 2015. For the live action version see here

It was whilst trying to get a successful shot of these incredibly active insects that I thought I might catch one and slow it down in the fridge and thus be able to get a nice close up picture. As usual I had forgotten my butterfly net (one year I will actually remember to pack it) so had to improvise with a T-shirt and stick. Needless to say this was not very successful and I only managed a glancing ‘strike’ on my chosen victim. Not surprisingly he/she flew off. What was surprising was that the flower bed remained hawkmoth-free for about an hour or so. Once they returned I had yet another unsuccessful attempt at capturing one, and again noticed that they disappeared and did not return for another couple of hours. Intrigued I repeated my unsuccessful capture attempts (deliberately this time) over the next few days and found this behaviour repeated. So, no problems if I stood there and filmed/watched them, but if I tried to catch them, off they went (I was unable to see where) not to return for a couple of hours. I hypothesised that they must be able to ‘remember’ being attacked and that this was a predator-avoidance mechanism.

I knew that adult lepidoptera in general are able to ‘remember’ host suitability for oviposition sites and alter their concept of a good quality host depending on the suitability of the previous host plants that they had landed on and the number of eggs left in their reproductive tract.

Host acceptability model

A very simple model to illustrate the trade-off between host plant acceptance, egg load and time in lepidoptera. I thought I had published this figure somewhere but apparently not 🙂

Adult lepidoptera such as the green-veined white butterfly, Pieris napi (Goulson & Cory, 1993) and the Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus (Rodrigues & Weiss, 2012) are also able to remember (retain) learned information about suitable feeding resources e.g. those flowers that are likely to give them the most nectar and this is also true for the hummingbird hawkmoth which is able to remember flower preferences even after hibernation (Kelber, 2010).

Although adult lepidoptera have a number of predator avoidance mechanisms, e.g. mimicry, aposematism, unpalatability or innate behaviours (e.g. Roper & Redston, 1987; Bowers, 1980; Greig & Greenfield, 2004; Stevens, 2005) I have been unable to find any reference to them being able to ‘remember’ being attacked and then avoiding the area for some time afterwards. There are, on the other hand, many papers about predators learning to avoid distasteful lepidopteran prey but nothing about adult lepidoptera learning to avoid predator-rich areas. This would seem a ‘sensible’ trait to evolve so I am surprised that no one seems to have tested its existence. Please let me know if you have ever come across any references to this sort of behaviour or feel free to conduct the experiment formally.

References

Agnew, K. & Singer, M.C. (2000) Does fecundity drive the evolution of insect diet? Oikos, 88, 533-538.

Bowers, M.D. (1980) Unpalatability as a defense strategy of Euphydryas phaeton (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Evolution, 34, 586-600.

Goulson, D. & Cory, J.S. (1993) Flower constancy and learning in foraging preferences of the green-veined white butterfly Pieris napi. Ecological Entomology, 18, 315-320.

Greig, E.I. & Greenfield, M.D. (2004) Sexual selection and predator avoidance in an acoustic moth: discriminating females take fewer risks. Behaviour, 141, 799-815

Kelber, A. (2010) What a hawkmoth remembers after hibernation depends on innate preferences and conditioning situation. Behavioral Ecology, 21, 1093-1097

Rodriques, D. & Weiss, M.R. (2012) Reward tracking and memory decay in the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus L. (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Ethology, 118, 122-1131

Roper, T.J. & Redston, S. (1987) Conspicuousness of distasteful prey affects the strength and durability of one-trial avoidance learning. Animal Behaviour, 35, 739-747

Singer, M.C. (1984). Butterfly-host plant relationships: host quality, adult choice and larval success. In The Biology of Butterflies (ed. by R.I. Vane-Wright & P.R. Ackery), pp. 81-88. Chapman & Hall, London.

Stevens, M. (2005) The role of eyespots as anti-predator mechanisms, principally demonstrated in the Lepidoptera. Biological Reviews, 80, 573-588

 

 

 

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Post card from Catalunya Nord – Summer Holiday 2015

 

If three years can be construed as a tradition then this is my traditional holiday blog post! This year we spent three weeks in Catalan France, in the Pyrénées-Orientales.  We have usually travelled south by putting our car on the train and having a relaxing and interesting overnight journey letting the train take the strain. Unfortunately there seems to be a conspiracy against motor-railers and yet another of our train options was closed this year.   As I like to bring back a few bottles of wine with me, the hire-car option is not very attractive. We thus had to do the ferry and drive option. We caught the ferry from Portsmouth on a Friday night and arrived early the next morning in Caen.

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We were then faced with the long drive to Maureillas-las-Illas, a small town close to the Spanish border. We split the journey in half and spent the night in a very picturesque B&B run by an aged Italian lady in a tiny village in the Charente-Maritime,

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not far from the town of Saint-Genis-de-Saintonge, near Pons, which had rather an unusual roundabout which I immediately added to my collection 😉

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Pons itself was a rather nice little town which just happened to be having a medieval fete when we arrived.

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We eventually arrived at Maureillas-las-Illas and were then faced with a 20 minute drive up a single track mountain road to Las Illas and finally up a dirt track to our holiday villa in Super Las Illas (a seven minute walk from the Spanish border) where we to be based for the next three weeks.

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There was of course a pool, with a lovely view, although given that we were at 900 m, it was not the warmest pool we have ever

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experienced even on a sunny day J

In terms of wildlife, it was not as prolific as some places we have stayed, although the pool collected the usual suicidal millipedes, Hymenoptera, Diptera, Coleoptera and even some grasshoppers and the odd shield bug or two. I also rescued a small lizard which then seemed to become very attached to me, at one stage even taking refuge in my hair.

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There were the usual impossible to photograph humming-bird hawk moths and numerous swallowtails

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which I did manage to snap. I also discovered that one of my favourite entomological shirts was a great hoverfly attractant, although despite the design, did not fool any of the butterflies.

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We were not far from Ceret, which we had visited five years ago and were happy to renew our acquaintance with its narrow streets, Picasso fountain and many cafés.

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We also came across this street celebrating Charles De Gaulle’s exhortation to the French people in 1940, although I was saddened to see that vandals had been at work, albeit appositely.

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We also visited Amelie-les-Bains and Prats de Mollo La Preste, the former apparently famous for urinary tract cures!   In Prats we saw

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multi-storey graves and also a great painting of one of the gates of the old walled town on a house opposite the actual gate

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Unusually we only had one trip to the coast, Port Vendres where we enjoyed a sunny morning and a very long lunch.

 

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On our return to the villa we might have been forgiven for thinking that we had somehow been transported back to an English autumn.

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We also we went to Vernet-les-Bains and surrounding areas, looking at potential places to retire. We knocked quite a few houses off the possible to buy list; it is amazing how different the pictures that estate agents put on their sites are from the real thing.   It was nice to be in Vernet again, although once again Gill found the hilly streets a bit tough going.

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Since our last visit the old communal lavoir has been very nicely restored both externally and internally.

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Vernet also has a nice arboretum scattered through the town and parks, so you often come across signs like this. I was pleased to see that one of my favourite trees (Prunus padus, bird cherry) gets a mention.

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We also visited Elne a very pretty sleepy little town with a small cathedral.  Nearby we found a nice artist’s centre where we had lunch and a local artisanal Catalan beer,

 

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and for the entomologists, some horse-chestnut leaf miner damage

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Gorges de la Fou is well worth a visit and as well as being geologically impressive, is also signed botanically.

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It turned out that the obligatory safety hats were made in the UK.

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We also visited Thuir – mainly famous for Byrrh (but they also prepare and bottle other fortified aromatic wines including Cinzano, Ambassadeur, Vabe and Dubonnet). Unfortunately the tour didn’t have any manufacturing going on but there were free samples at the end, which as a responsible driver was a little frustrating.

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We visited Perpignan a couple of times.   Both times we were blessed with lovely hot sunny weather. Plenty of canal side cafes, the castle of the Kings of Majorca is worth a visit, with great views from the top, although a bit of a climb to get there.

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We also came across these giant flower pots which is certainly an interesting way to grow urban trees.

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Closer to home was the Cork museum in Maureillas-las-Illas .   It is very interesting although quite small, and even if you watch the video and visit the shop, where I bought a cork post card, the visit is easily done within an hour. I really liked the mini-sculptures in cork depicting the making of cork. There were also examples of cork ark and furniture.

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And of course, not forgetting the biggest cork in the world.

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On Day One of our marathon motorway trip on our way back to catch the ferry we stopped at the most fantastic motorway service station (Aire) ever – jazz band, environmental messages, great gift shop, a restaurant, a cafeteria, and a sandwicherie, plus lots of water (it was on the Canal du Midi). Perhaps our motorway service areas could take a lesson from Vinci.

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We broke our return journey in the Charente-Maritime again, this time staying in a glorious B&B in Forges. Nearby was the town of Surgeres which provided me with yet another roundabout for my collection.

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The next morning, as La Rochelle was not far way, we took the opportunity to have coffee there and to do a bit of sight-seeing. A very picturesque place indeed and it would have been nice if we could have stopped longer. It is now on our list of places to come and revisit.

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We left La Rochelle late morning and continued our trip towards Caen, where we arrived in the early evening with plenty of time to do a bit of sight-seeing.  We came across this very shiny statue of Joan of Arc.  We then sat in the sun at the head of the canal and had a very good dinner.

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Then sadly, it was off to the ferry port to wait to be allowed to board as the sun set on our holiday ;-(

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Post script

This year we invested in Télépéage, which allowed us to sail through the toll booths on the motorways instead of queuing and scrabbling for the right money – well worth the investment.

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Look Back in Angers – Teaching in France but not in French

I have long been aware of the Erasmus Programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) having had many Erasmus students in my classes over the years whilst at Imperial College.  It was however, only after moving to Harper Adams University, that I found out that there was also a similar programme to enable academic staff to spend time teaching at sister institutions.  I was contacted earlier this year by Joséphine Pithon from the Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture d’Angers who wondered if I would like to come across to Angers a city I am ashamed to admit that I had very little knowledge of.  The chance of spending a week in France, my favourite holiday destination, was too good to turn down and my wife Gill was also very keen to have a short break and refresh her French language skills.  To cut a long story short, on Monday 24th March, we caught the Eurostar to Lille and then the TGV on to Angers, arriving mid-afternoon in, to our dismay, a very wet Angers.  We booked into our hotel, found somewhere not too far away to eat and then retired to deal with emails (sad to say we had both brought our laptops with us) and for me to double-check that my lectures were ready to deliver.
Tuesday dawned warm and sunny, much to Gill’s relief who had a day of sightseeing planned and I walked to ESA, which was only ten minutes away, collecting a roundabout on the way, albeit not as  spectacular as those in the south of France.

Roundabout Angers

 I arrived at a very welcoming ESA and managed to  make myself understood at reception and was introduced to my first class, a group of third years getting their first introduction to

ESA welcome

entomology.  It seemed to go well and despite me lecturing in English they asked a lot of pertinent questions. I then gave them two lectures on sampling and survey methods before going for lunch with my hosts.  I must give the staff canteen (cantine) a rave review – for less than €5 we got a three course lunch with coffee. Then it was back to lecture to a fourth year group about biological control and pest management, again to a very interactive group of students.  Then it was the short walk back to the hotel followed by an excellent meal in the city centre with my new French colleagues.  On the way we admired the bendy trams and marveled at the ingenuity of having ‘green’ tramways wherever possible.

 Tram  Tram lines

The next day I gave a seminar and then we headed out into the field with the third year students to collect insects and other invertebrates using a mixture of methods, pitfall traps, yellow pan traps, pooters, beating trays (known as Japanese umbrellas in French), sweep nets and extendable butterfly nets.  French students in the field are very similar in

Students getting briefed            Pan trap                Angers fieldwork

Extended net             Head first               Using  the pooter

behaviour to their British counterparts 😉  Then it was the end of the day and time to relax and find somewhere nearby to eat and get ready for a morning in the laboratory on Thursday.

Thursday morning was spent with the students helping them identify the various organisms that they had brought back from our day in the field.  It appears that whilst students have to wear lab coats staff are exempt!  Our lab manager at Harper Adams would never allow that; I am frequently being told off for popping into the lab sans coat.

Busy in the lab

In the lab I had to use my French a bit more as some students were better than others at English and in a one to one situation I feel a little less hesitant about demonstrating my inept language skills.  I think we all had a fun morning and learnt a lot from each other.  After an excellent lunch it was time for a break; there is no teaching at ESA on a Thursday afternoon so I was free to join Gill for an afternoon of sightseeing around Angers.  Needless to say it began to rain!  Nevertheless we saw the magnificent Château d’Angers, once the home of René I a most impressive building even in the rain and with a nice entomological surprise on the ramparts; beehives..

Chateau 2           Chateau                Bee hives

And of course a mini-vineyard complete with a rose bush at the end of the row to give early warning of mildew infections! Great to see pest management in action;-)

Vine yard  Rose at end of row

Thursday evening saw us at a great little restaurant in the city centre where we met up with Professor David Logan a plant physiologist at the University of Angers, and someone I had previously only met on Twitter.  He introduced us to a couple of very nice local wines and we had a superb (and very reasonably priced) meal. It was a great end to a fantastic and educational trip.  I think it is very impressive that the French students are willing and able to be lectured to in English.  I am ashamed to say that I think that very few of our own students would be able to cope with a week of teaching in French!

Given the chance I would definitely like to repeat the experience and spend more time there.

Post script
Whilst roaming the corridors of ESA I came across a departmental notice board where I saw this cutting from the February issue of the L’Éleveur laitier a French agricultural magazine, and was very amused to see how they portrayed British farmers!

How they see us

 

 

 

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Postcard from La France Profonde

A bit of a lazy blog this week.  Nothing really scientific, just a bit of a synopsis of our holiday so far.  Two weeks in and two of the children (29 and 19-year-old) arriving on the 0500 train in Gourdon tomorrow – Saturday, so last day on our own.

Without a doubt this has been the quietest part of France we have ever visited (we are staying in rather a nice villa, Combe du Bos, just outside Salviac).

Combe du Bos compressed  Combe du Bos interior compressed

One of the reasons we like France is because it is big but has so few people, and so the roads outside the big cities are almost deserted and the only real hustle and bustle you get is on market days or in tourist traps such as Carcassonne.  The Lot and the Dordogne area, which is where we are, is however, the sleepiest place we have ever been.  The towns and villages, except for the restaurants and bars, shut their doors at around mid-day and do not reopen until 3 or 3.0 in the afternoon.  How some of the shops make a living we can only guess at.  The exceptions to this universal lunchtime closing are the big supermarkets and even they tend to have only one or two check-outs open during the long lunch.

The local stone is fantastic, except where they have covered it with render, and the houses and churches lovely and quaint.  Almost cute.

Rampoux Church

Rampoux Church

Market Hall beams Villefrance du Perigord

Market Hall beams Villefrance du Perigord

Villefranche du Perigord quaint  housesa compressed

We even found a Dolmen at Pech Curet – we have been hunting for them for years under the impression that Dolmens and Menhirs were like Stonehenge – quite a different scale in France!

Le Dolmen Dolmen

Also love the refreshing lack of Health and Safety as evidenced in Le Tour at Luzech!

Le Tour - ladder Le Tour Luzech

Food and drink lovely – a selection of local wines and the cheese board from La Casserole in Salviac.

Local wines  Cheese compressed

and why do French supermarkets have so many more desserts to choose from?

Desserts

Unfortunately I do not have a good camera with me so unable to do the magnificent insect life justice; swallowtail butterflies, hummingbird hawk moths, bumblebees, many interesting hoverflies and even some artwork!

  Three swallowtails compressed  Metal butterfly

Butterfly shop compressed

Rocamadour – a fantastic sight, but why build a town on such a steep slope!

Rocamadour compressed

Having a great time and still a week left 😉

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My Uncle and cousin were spies!

Actually it was my great-Uncle and my third cousin once removed but that doesn’t make for such a snappy title.  One of the joys of family history research is that every now and then you come across something really unexpected and the fact that I had two spies in my family was no exception.  The two in question are John Henry Leather (1893-1958), my grandfather’s youngest brother and Sir Desmond Falkiner Morton 1891-1971), my third cousin once-removed.  This post shows you how useful newspaper archives can be.

NPG x25675; Desmond John Falkiner Morton by Howard Coster

I knew of the existence of both of these characters from my family tree and that both had served in the army during World War 1.  What I hadn’t realised was how involved they were with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). As I got more involved with my family tree I first found out that Desmond Morton or Sir Desmond as he later became, had been Sir Winston Churchill’s personal spymaster, and I often used to get great pleasure of mentioning my relationship to him, whenever he was featured in a World War 2 film.  He, Sir Desmond that is, is often portrayed as being in the next room to Churchill in his secret bunker, ever ready to spring out and offer advice.  His life is well documented in a book by Gill Bennett,  (Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence Routledge, 2009).

Desmond Morton book cover

He was, by all accounts, and very appropriately, highly secretive, kept very much to himself and died a bachelor.  What I hadn’t realised until very recently however, was that he was Catholic and not only a Catholic, but Master of the London Branch of the Civil Service Catholic Guild.  Our family has been staunchly Church of England (at least those of us who are not humanists) for as long as we have existed in the Parish Records.  It appears from an article in the Catholic Herald of 23rd February 1951, that he was received into the Catholic Church after the Battle of the Somme, which like many of the other men involved in that bloodbath, obviously affected him greatly.  The following year, he was wounded very badly, and never fully recovered, despite living to a fairly respectable age.

Much, much more fun, was my great-uncle John, who unfortunately died before I was born.  I learnt of his exploits from my second cousin Chris Bennett (no relation to Gill Bennett) who sent me an article from the Cleckheaton Guardian describing his arrest and trial in Paris in 1926, where he had apparently been spying on our noble allies the French. He was a much more louche character as can be seen from this rather poor photograph.

John Henry Leather spy a

The case is rather nicely summarised by this excerpt from a book review by David Jones

http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/perfidious-albion-an-introduction-to-the-secret-history-of-the-british-empire

Yet another example of British spying in France, this one in the wake of the First World War, provides a little comic relief. In December 1925, the Surete arrested three male British subjects and two French female accomplices on charges of espionage. All were convicted in subsequent proceedings. The leading figure in the case, Capt. John Henry Leather, and his two colleagues, Ernest Phillips and William Fischer, were employees of the Paris office of the Burndept Wireless Co. They also all had recent backgrounds in British military intelligence. As of 1925, in fact, Leather was still attached to MI2(b), the War Office outfit handling intelligence in Western Europe. The Foreign Office, Air Ministry and Admiralty ritually denied any connection to the men. Naturally, no one asked the “Agency That Didn’t Exist,” MI6. But there was no doubt about the guilt of Leather and his pals. Their undoing came about because he and Fischer had developed rival romantic interests in one of the French femmes, Marthe Moreuil, better known as “Mlle. Foxtrot,” whom they had used to coax information out of smitten French officers. For reasons never made clear, Moreuil tossed a packet of love letters out the window of a train, but managed to include a stash of compromising documents. These were retrieved by a curious farmer who dutifully turned them over to authorities. The main target of the Leather gang’s espionage was the French air force, then reckoned by London as the only air force that could pose a threat to Britain.

For more details of his career and life see Phil Tomaselli’s book Tracing Your Secret Service Ancestors published by Pen & Sword in  2009 and an article by Chris Bennett published in 2002  (see Leather Lives, ed. S R Leather, Leather Family History Society).  After he left the SIS he founded the Bromley Little Theatre which he managed and also acted as a Director for many of the productions, until his death in 1958.  After his death the theatre commissioned this rather handsome plaque.

John Henry Leather spy

Interestingly enough, my Uncle John (John Adams Leather 1916-1997), was also an actor and artist http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-john-leather-1281002.html. Their artistic talents have, however, not revealed themselves in me, unless you consider lecturing to be equivalent to an acting profession.  The spy gene, however, might have had its chance had I been less of a non-conformist in my youth.

Simon Finland 1981

After receiving my PhD in 1980, I was awarded a Royal Society Fellowship to work in Finland.  At the time, although Finland was a resolutely independent country, their history and proximity to what was then the USSR, meant that they had very close trade and diplomatic links with that state.  Shortly before I was due to depart from England I was approached by a certain department within Her Majesty’s Government and asked if I would be willing to discreetly sound out and observe Finnish attitudes to their neighbour.  I was totally outraged and told them where to put their proposal.  I was also somewhat shocked to think that they would think that I, a Private Eye subscriber at the time, would even contemplate doing such a thing.  Given what I know now about my family’s connection with the Intelligence Services, it possibly makes a little more sense.  Who knows, I certainly don’t.

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