Sunday, 23 April 2017

Photographing a Toastmasters' Competition


A member and photographer's view on photography and photographing a Toastmasters Competition. I present a (hopefully humorous) perspective on competitions from a photographers view and follow with solutions and actions to help other members who are entrusted with the photography at their events. The article includes a note on permissions and rights.


Photography at events is a bit like giving birth (so I hear, and obviously nowhere near as painful and without the longer term commitments). You swear you'll never go through with it again but for some reason, amnesia sets in, and when you are asked to photograph at another event, you blithely accept, having forgotten your past resolution.

Darren, fellow Toastmaster from the Huntingdonshire speakers, and one of this years regional competition organisers, had actually found a cunning solution as a past photographer - he asked me if I would care to step in for today's event in Wyboston Lakes, as he had his hands full. The venue was located in the Training centre, set in the beautiful grounds of the complex. Great conference facilities (and outstanding kitchen). As a Toastmaster myself, I was looking forward to the competition too.

Now, with the event still fresh in my mind, I thought that before the amnesia sets in again, I'll give you a rundown of what to look out for if you are entering such an innocuous space and event as being the photographer for your Toastmasters' competition.

I'll tell you a bit about the challenges and then give you some solutions.

The challenges of photographing a Toastmasters' Event

You have been asked to photograph the event. You agree. On the day you arrive at the venue a bit early with your camera. Great! The event organisers can tick off a box, give you a program and send you to the room where the event will be taking place

Room lighting

The Theory

Cameras need good light. In an ideal world, your event will take place in a large venue, with a high roof, with lots of lighting that can be dimmed, a stage that is covered by a series of wide spots and lights that illuminate the speakers well from the front and all sides. Imagine a television studio for a live sitcom or a larger theatre or town's entertainment venue. Yes, this dream can be realised when you are at the top end of the competition scene - but then the organisers would hire a professional photographer as part of the overall budget and you could simply enjoy the show!

The Reality

The event is a conference facility, often part of a training centre or hotel, or a lecture theatre. The room will be large enough for the event and one wall is dedicated to the speakers and a projector screen.

The first thing to check on entry into the room is the artificial lighting. Like many facilities, it is most likely to have "even illumination" of the whole room using fluorescent strip lighting behind decorative panels across the whole ceiling, parallel to the speaker's end. To the human eye it looks well lit. But watch a person's face whilst they cross a room from the photographer's perspective. It goes like this: backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face, backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face. Demon face being the effect you get when holding a light directly under your chin, or in this case, directly overhead.

What's more, during a presentation, the lights over the audience may be dimmed, with the speaker lit from above from one row of lights. If the presentation uses an overhead projector, the speaker will be in the dark too.

Then there is the fact that fluorescent lights can flicker at 1/50th or 1/60th of a second. So if you use a shutter speed faster than 100th of a second with fluorescent lights, you get pictures that are alternately light and dark.

The Speakers

At non-toastmaster events, the average speaker is usually petrified of the audience, seeks the security of a lectern, and is therefore static. If you are lucky, the venue might even have a spotlight on the lectern. Photographically this is an ideal solution. Use a tripod, aim and fire.

Sadly, Toastmasters and other competent speakers are not so accommodating. There is the probability of body language with exuberant and unexpected gestures. The speaker is likely to roam up and down the presenting area and even forwards and backwards relative to the audience (backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face, backlit in shadow, faintly lit, demon face). They will turn their heads from side to side to maintain eye contact with the audience, and even contort their features to reflect mood, in addition to unexpected expressions when photographing someone speaking. In short, they are unpredictable and a photographic liability. Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable aspect of photographing a Toastmasters' event.

The Audience

The audience is passively looking at the speaker as they listen. The speaker is fine as they have eye contact. The audience is fine, because they are actively listening. You are not fine. Your photographs of a passive audience not looking directly at the camera looks like a sea of total boredom. Fortunately there is a solution, given further below.

The Awards

Competitions inevitably have awards. The participants, the runners up and the winner will be called up to roaring applause from an enthusiastic Toastmasters audience. They will shake hands with the presenter and stop and pose with their certificates and prizes to be photographed! That is the theory, anyway. 

The reality is that these are emotionally charged moments, as I have experienced myself. You get so taken up with the surprise, relief and joy of having been called up, that it all happens as if in a dream. You go up, shake hands and accept the certificate, show it modestly/triumphantly/ecstatically (please delete according to your personality) and leave the stage in a delirium of happiness - before the photographer has been able to get that great photo of you. 

Furthermore, as a photographer, you suddenly find that the backdrop to the presentations is distracting - perhaps it is an emergency exit sign, or the overhead projector is still displaying the last presentation's slide on a white background behind the presentation so everyone is silhouetted or has an image of text projected over them. With yesterday's event, it was the ultramodern lectern, supported on a metallic spiral and illuminated red from within (red immediately draws the eye away from other objects in a photo).

The Anticlimax - Processing the pictures

The event was a success, the organisers breathe a sigh of relief and everyone goes back home to reminisce on a great event and relax before having to think of the next one. 

Except for the photographer. You have to download all the images, check that at least a reasonable proportion were OK, edit them, and then make them available - ASAP, before the memory of the event passes.


Before the Event

Be part of the event organisation

  • Ideally, the photography should be part of the event planning team right from the start
  • If this is not possible:
    • Get more feedback from the event organisers on:
      • The location and 
      • What they are looking for re photography BEFORE the event. 
  • Make the organisers aware that they need to let people know:
    • That photos will be taken
    • Establish the ground rules of what and who can be photographed and what not (see later in document about rights)
    • Get a program for the day
  • Check out the venue in advance, so you are aware of its pros and cons for photography


You will need:
  •  A good camera that:
    • Will take pictures at high resolution (suggested minimum 3000 pixels by 2000 pixels or 6 Megapixels)
    • Can work in low light, with noise reduction
    • Has a good autofocus.
  • Lenses or capabilities for normal and telephoto photography.
  • Fill in flash or bouncing flash options.
  • Spare batteries - and a charger! If using a high end smartphone, take a power source with you. 
  • A memory card that will last the event (several hundred pictures). 
  • A tripod is always useful, so take one along in case of eventualities.
  • Good photo editing software.

On the day


Arrive early and touch base with the organisers on site, to find out whether plans have changed and to obtain the final program. It is also useful to find out who is conducting the key roles of Toastmaster, Workshop Speaker etc for the different parts of the program, with a view to chatting with them.

The Venue

  • Check out the room for lighting, audience area and speaker areas.
  • Look at the backdrop behind the speaker area to find your best angle for most photos without distracting background.
  • Try to ensure you can get as much lighting as possible for photography, without affecting the proceedings too much.

Camera Settings

I personally find it much less disruptive to an event if you can take pictures without flash most of the time. I do use fill in flash for the awards. For pictures without flash:
  • Set your camera to a higher ISO, make sure high ISO noise reduction is on, if you have that option. 
  • Adjust your camera's white balance to the rooms lighting to get a good colour correction. Your camera manual should tell you how to do this.
    • If you change rooms, adjust the white balance for each room before continuing with photography
  • Your shutter speed should be the highest you can get, taking account of the lighting.
    • Take several test pictures in short succession of a random scene in the room. If the pictures differ in brightness, your shutter speed may be too fast and you are capturing the flicker of the lights. Reduce your shutter speed to 1/60th second or less.
  • My personal preference is to use the telephoto lens (70 mm - 300 mm equivalent) for informal shots of the speakers and audience, as they are less aware of the camera.
  • I use my normal lens for head and shoulder portraits and for the awards.

When you can and cannot photograph

There will be event rules about when you can photograph. For example, at the competition day I was at, photography was not permitted during the actual competitions, but was permitted at the workshops and other times.

Photographing speakers

Try taking several photographs of the speaker and see how they look on replay. Some are simply hard to capture because they are too active, both in facial expression and body movement. If you cannot do them justice in full flow, approach them later and take a head and shoulders photo or two at under good lighting. Facing a bright window but in shade works well for me as this gives even lighting that flatters the subject.

Where it looks as if you can get good photographs of the speaker in flow try the following:
  • In mid speech - this can give expressive pictures of face and body language.
  • In speech pauses - the speaker may stop and smile or have another expression held long enough to get a good sharp picture.
  • Under changing lighting. If you have a speaker under strip lights, they do give you an opportunity to get effects such as:
    • Even (but dim) illumination.
    • Strong highlights and shadows accentuating facial features.
    • Backlit highlighting of profile.
    • Silhouetting against a projected image.
  • It is better to take fewer good pictures than snap all the time.
  • Also aim to get a separate Head and shoulders picture after the talk in good lighting.

Photographing the Audience

I prefer to photograph individuals or groups of an audience using a telephoto lens, as they are less aware of you and act naturally.

As mentioned above, the standard appearance of an audience on camera is misinterpreted as boredom, because of lack of eye contact. Some actually close their eyes to concentrate of listening, which looks as if they are sleeping.

My tip is, wait for an audience reaction to the speaker and then photograph. To do this, scan the audience in the first minute or two of the talk. Select one or two subjects which you can frame well without them being aware of you. Wait till there is an audience reaction and take a picture or two. Also see if you can get a track of four or five audience members in a particular view, so you can capture a group response. You can quietly move around to a different location and repeat the process. As a photographer you are endowed with a magical ability to do this with impunity if done with respect.

Many Toastmaster speakers do workshops where the audience is asked to work in twos or threes. These are great opportunities to wander around and take casual photos.

The Awards

Photographically, the awards present you with a dilemma. You need to photograph the handovers of certificates and prizes, but these are also times when the audience will react strongly and at predictable times for photography!

If you are confident in rapidly changing your viewpoint, you could try both. I took the decision that the receipt of the awards was most important.

You are at the mercy of the person or persons giving the awards here. You can try talking to them in advance to advise/coordinate how this is best done to get a good picture. With a good compare, the process is remarkably easy (Michelle Chester, I love you!). If people are moving off too fast or there is something that does prevent these important pictures from being their best. Politely interject and ask for the change. Done with authority and respect, this is again facilitated by the magic mantle of being the photographer.

Always take several pictures - you can then use the one where no-one blinked or had a strange expression!

After the Event

  • Immediately upload your photos on return from the event and do not delete the images on the memory card. you now have a backup in case one fails.
  • Go through the photos and delete the ones that are unflattering, unsharp, or the poorer of several of the same scene or individual.
  • Crop the images to remove extraneous clutter if possible and to nicely frame the subjects.
  • Adjust contrast and colour.
  • Remove any image noise if feasible.
  • Sharpen slightly.
Most images will be used online or printed at a conventional photo size e.g. 15 cm x 10 cm (6' x 4'). An image size of 2000 pixels along the long edge is more than enough for these purposes and will save you upload time and file space.

I photograph at 6000 pixels x 4000 pixels, edit the pictures and export them at 3000 pixels by 2000 pixels. These are the pictures I upload to my Google Photo albums at the default size best for web sharing of 2000 x 1536 pixels.

Sharing the Pictures

When you are all set and dome with editing, upload your pictures at a convenient size for sharing according to the wishes of the event organiser. Sometimes, pictures are to be shared privately, through a unique link. At other times, they can be displayed publicly.

The Onus is on You: A Note on Permissions and Rights

When your club asks you as a member to be the photographer, they may not be fully aware of, or thinking about permissions and rights of the images. These rights are however important. In many cases the photography and sharing occurs without this awareness and without any problems.

However, if you have been asked to photograph at an event, you have a certain responsibility to ensure that these different rights are protected.

There are a range of rights to consider, which should have  been (but rarely are) agreed in advance. These may differ slightly from country to country.

  1. The photographer automatically has the copyright to the pictures they have taken.
  2. The event organisers have the right to limit the use of photographs taken at their event.
  3. The event venue has a right to limit the use of photographs taken at their venue.
  4. Individuals photographed singly have the right to ask for their picture not to be taken or used.
  5. Parents control the rights of their children re photography and can ask for their picture not to be taken or used.
Without making things too complicated all round, what should you do?

I recommend that you ask the event organisers in advance to:
  • Check that it is OK to take photographs at their venue for their use.
  • Check that at during registration for or at the event, it is made clear that photographs will be taken and how they will be shared. If individuals do not want to be photographed, to make themselves known to the photographer or organiser.
    • That this excludes being photographed incidentally in a group (say of the audience)
  • State how the photographs are to be used/shared after the event.
Since you are taking the pictures on behalf of the event and as a Toastmasters' member, don't be precious about your copyright. You are doing this for the team. (I believe that the Toastmasters rules expressly forbid members from financially profiting from the activity)

Whatever you do, you will ALWAYS have the right of attribution - that is, to be recognised as the photographer if you so wish, but whether you insist or not, that is your personal decision.


Being volunteered to do the photography at a Toastmasters competition is a challenging task, but ultimately rewarding! I gave some tips on difficulties you might encounter and offered solutions to help you overcome them, based on my own personal experience!

Monday, 13 March 2017

An artist's guide to Photographing your own Artwork

Book Cover of Photographing your Artwork

I've prepared a simple guide for artists on how to photograph their artwork, from 2D paintings and collages, 3D pottery or sculptures or reflective objects like jewelry.

Many artists need photographs of their artwork for a range of different purposes, from creating prints to advertising to for their websites and online shops. We all seem to have cameras of some form, from those on our smartphones, via tablets, pocket and bridge cameras to expensive SLRs. But often, when you take pictures yourself, they can seem unsatisfying, or you are unsure about the best picture to take and use.

Quite often, I'm asked by others who do occasional photography for some help with their cameras and pictures. So I thought, wouldn't it be useful to summarise a lot of my basic tips and tricks for photographing artwork into a handy simple reference guide.

I'm a long-standing photographer, who learnt the craft well before the digital era, when film was still the only way to take pictures. My speciality is photographing subjects really close up, though the microscope if I can! This requires quite a detailed knowledge of how cameras work and the physics and techniques of photography, as well as how to edit the photos to get the best final picture. I also exhibit with Cambridge Open Studios, paint and draw with both conventional and computer based tools.

The experience has helped me both with photographing my own artwork and that of others. This includes photography for small museums preparing digital archives of their collections.

The Kindle book, available at, starts off with four handy one page cartoon checklists, like the one for 2D art shown on the left. In fact, you may be able to use this one here straight away!

If you are familiar with your camera and basic photography, these are handy reminders as you prepare for taking your best pictures of your artwork.

There are three photography checklists, for 2D artwork such as paintings and drawings, 3D artwork such as pottery and one for reflective pieces such as jewelry.

Once you have taken your pictures, you also need some guidance on how to edit these digitally to get the best result. This is covered  by the 4th checklist.

The bulk of the book follows the checklists and goes through them with a more detailed explanation. The phrasing and advice is aimed at you, the artist. It minimises jargon where possible and does not go off into more detail than absolutely necessary. Whilst there are so many different cameras about in our possession, from our smartphones, via tablets, pocket and bridge cameras to expensive SLRs, most of the fundamentals described in this book apply to them all.

If you want to give photographing your own artwork a go or aim to achieve even better results than you have in the past, then 'Photographing your own Artwork' by Chris Thomas is for you and available at available at for a couple of pounds/dollars/euros.

Let me know how you get on by emailing me Chris, chris(at)

Good Luck!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Tips on printing your photographs as cards

I had an enquiry today about the best way to get your photos printed on cards, to give away or sell for a local church or organisation. Here's my reply:

"Thank you for your inquiry about the way to get best results when printing photos of church windows.

  • You can use any program that will allow you to design the outer spread of a card - and the inner, if you are including a greeting. 
    • Inkscape is a free software that allows you to design things with pictures, shapes and text.
  • Work in Adobe RGB colour space as this is the most commonly shared.
  • Make sure that your documents are prepared at a resolution of 300dpi (for an A6 picture on a card, that is about 1600px tall by 1300px wide.
  • If you want the picture to go right to the top, right and bottom edge of the card after folding, then make the image 2 to 3mm larger on those sides to allow for trimming
  • Save your prepared outer and inner card designs as one PDF or two separate PDFs.
  • Consider whether you want a silk or glossy outer finish to the cards.
    • Also be aware that the inner should be a surface that can be written on in pencil/pen etc.
  • Then either:
    • Check out your local printers to see if they can print cards of a suitable thickness from your PDFs.
      • If you can visit them and ask for a test print, even if it costs you a couple of pounds for one example - you want to make sure the colour reproduction is good and punchy enough.
    • Or search online for card printers. 
      • For example, Moo is good for postcards. 
      • Again, see if you can get a sample printed to check you like the reproduction.
  • Once you know how many cards you want printed and the cost, make sure that you price the cards to cover your costs and possibly earn a little to repay your time and effort.

Do send me a card when you are successful :-)

Good Luck,


Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Schwarzenegger Effect

This intriguing little graph comes from the stats page of my BrexiTrumpDiary blog. The large peak in visitors to the site corresponds to the day after I posted by diary entry for the 2nd February. The entry was titled "Strand-Beests and Schwarzenegger Trumps".

Now, doing a Google search on Strandbeest crudely gives 335,000 hits. Schwarzenegger gets 43,000,000 hits and Trump gets a whopping 1,110,000,000 hits. Since many of my BrexiTrumpDiary  blog titles include 'Trump' without eliciting this strong response, it must be an Arnie effect. No doubt it was helped by the highly amusing war of words they had with Schwarzenegger's quip about swapping jobs so that we could all sleep safely again. This brought his name into the spotlight briefly.

My BrexiTrumpDiary articles are ticking along at about 50 to 60 visits per day*. The "Strand-Beests and Schwarzenegger Trumps" article only did 30% better with about 80 visits. However, all earlier posts also received a boost, which gave an accumulated peak.

The chart also seems to suggest that the interest came in several peaks following the publishing of the article. You can see the initial daily spike like a heartbeat for other posts. The "Strandbeests and Schwarzenegger Trumps" article has several peaks. Perhaps these correspond to news broadcasts in the UK and the US at key times that talk about the Schwarzenegger-Trump spat and are followed by online searches for "Schwarzenegger".

There is however another word that can have a longer lasting effect and has resulted in the most visited post to date on the blog, "Tweets and hot chocolate", with 104 hits.  I wonder what it is?

You can find my BrexiTrumpDiary here at  and work backwards. Alternatively, the January posts are collated in the Kindle version of "BrexiTrumpDiary Jan 2017" at, a snip at 99p!

*The Miltoncontact blog has been going for a number of years now and scores higher in visits to posts overall, with a couple of hundred to 1500+ reads. It may still not seem a lot, but people who check me out before or after meetings generally find them and do comment at later meetings.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Can two authors in partnership write under one pseudonym?

Today, I had an interesting book question about using a pseudonym as an author, where there are two individuals involved. Let's take a hypothetical name A. B. Cartwryte, and that this is the pseudonym for two of you, Allyson and Bernard Cartwryte.

Let's say it right from the start, many authors do write under pseudonyms.

From a publishing perspective, there is no problem with the author being A. B. Cartwryte.

Where your pseudonym will become an issue for you personally, is with:

  1. Your copyright – A. B. Cartwryte will have it. You need to make clear somewhere that this is either 
    1. both you as Allyson Cartwryte and Bernard Cartwryte jointly 
    2. OR that you, Allyson Cartwryte are writing as A. B. Cartwryte and are the sole copyright holder. 
    3. The decision is yours.
  2. Correspondence – for simplicity’s sake and to avoid confusion of the recipient, you need to use your pseudonym with readers writing to you. Make sure therefore that you have email addresses for you as Allyson Cartwryte, and possibly also Bernard Cartwryte, if you both take responsibility for the book. 
  3. Payment – people will automatically send payments to A. B. Cartwryte or want receipts/invoices in that name. you might want to let your bank know in advance that either you, Allyson or you and Bernard may receive payments in that name, so payment’s don’t bounce. If your place of residence allows, you might set up a separate account for the book. This also makes it easier for later tax purposes.

There are two great articles on the issues arising from using pseudonyms here:

Please don’t just take my word for it but check out the implications for yourself and your situation, if you are thinking of writing under a pseudonym.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Victor's Story - extract from Go For It! Sixteen SME Leaders Share Their Stories

Victor’s story: From Bethnal Green to Brampton Green

Victor's story from school drop-out to a respected Independent Financial Advisor and Twitter master is one of the highlights from the Go  For It! book we published.

I grew up in the East End of London in a place called Bow.

Home was a 10 storey block of Council flats and we – that’s mum, dad and my brother, who is seven years older than me – lived on the first floor.

My aunt and grandmother lived on the fourth floor and Victoria Park was my garden. Family life was awesome and I was blessed to have loving parents.  

My father was a London taxi driver. Originally, he was an apprentice tailor, but kept stabbing himself with needles as he paid more attention to listening to the radio than sewing! My mum was a housewife who could throw £5 into a mangle and make it worth £30.  Such was her shopping brilliance. This worked well for the family, as my father was never one to buy a house and have a mortgage.

He didn't want financial pressures. He chose life over work and developed a love of travel.
I benefited from this because my older brother wanted peace and quiet to study for his O’ levels and I got to travel!

When most people were just discovering Benidorm in the 70s, my parents were exploring far flung places like South Africa, Japan, Hawaii, Mexico and I ‘had to’ go with them.  

All this travelling led to me wanting to be a pilot ‘when I grew up.’ That eventually passed, but my love of traveling remains to this day.

As I was growing up, my uncle ran a family retail business. He supplied paints and wallpaper way before Homecare, B&Q, Do-it-All and everything else came to the fore.  My brother and my two cousins had gone in there and I was expected to follow.

Sadly, my uncle’s business was dissolved before I came out of school.

I’ve always liked people. From the age of about five or six, I remember my uncle saying to my mum, "Give the kid a broom and let him sweep up." So, up until I was 16, that was my Saturday job.  I progressed from floor sweeping to serving and even went on a course to learn how to hang curtains in bay windows!

Looking back, I realise that I have always been an ‘out of the box’ thinker.

I remember certain teachers in secondary school reading out the curriculum, expecting us to write everything down, verbatim.  By the end of the year I would have about 15 exercise books filled with my scrawl. Such was the intensity of writing, I still have a mark on my ring finger of my left hand, where the pen pressed into it!

One day, I was so fed up, I said, “Miss, if you are just going to read from the book and we are just going to write it down – if you could take a Gestetner copy of it and distribute it to all of us, then you would save us a lot of time and then we could talk about the historical events.”

I got sent to detention for that.  I guess I could see things differently as a 15 year old and couldn’t help myself but to point this out. It was clearly taken in the wrong context, as what I wanted were discussions – maybe re-enactment – so I could get a feel for things, rather than a monosyllabic teacher reading from a book. I therefore found examinations difficult. Studying was hard. With hindsight, some visual aids, sounds or drawings would have helped me, but, alas, these were not available. So, at 16 when I took my CSE’s and O' levels, I failed all of them.  My best grade being a CSE grade 2 for English.

When the results came through, my parents were in dismay and didn’t know what to do with me.
After my results, my school recommended, and subsequently enrolled me in a 1 year foundation programme at the London College of printing.  The reason they did that was this was going to be one of the first courses that guaranteed me a job at the end of it.  So they felt that, if I was at least working, then that would get me into that mindset.  So that’s pretty much what I did. I got my City and Guilds certificate and passed with distinction. I learnt everything I could about the various processes of printing and got my first full time job in a printing supplies shop called 'Studio 91' in Turnham Green, West London.

If you look on a map, you’ll see that meant me going from virtually the furthest point East on the underground, to the furthest point West for the princely sum of £50 a week; £25 of that was paid to the employer from the Youth Opportunity Programme, and £25 a week came directly from the employer.  I worked from 8 to 5 with a 45 minute lunch break, 5 days a week and ‘only’ 10 till 4 on a Saturday. My weekly travel pass was £26 a week which meant I was left with just £24!

As much as I liked working in a retail shop, I did not like paying over half my wage to travel an hour and a quarter each way. So, about 6 months later, I left and found myself doing an array of retail jobs, such as conducting surveys on the telephone to snooker hall management.

Not glamorous but, I was earning good money. Money which could buy me nice trinkets – especially my RS1600i – a two door Ford Escort; my pride and joy.

“There was another unusual job I had a go at that I’ll always be glad I did; hair transplant selling.”

Shallow I know, but my desire for the high-life lead me to commission only sales and eventually into double glazing (via water filters).  Banging on people's doors, trying to get appointments, was no easy task. Nor was it any better calling people from the telephone directory. I did, however, manage to keep at it for three years.

There was another unusual job I had a go at that I’ll always be glad I did; hair transplant selling.
Now this really taught me about emotional feelings and, by using my mouth and ears in the proportions they were received, I learnt to understand the person in front of me and take the conversation from there. Unfortunately, it was commission only and I realised that, if I wanted to get married and have a family (which I did – no idea to whom, but I knew I wanted to be a husband and a father), I needed a 'proper job, with a regular wage.'

I decided to chat with my brother, who, as I said, was seven years older than me and by now, married and a father. After near bankruptcy following the dissolution of the aforementioned family business, he had drifted into financial services. So when I asked him, he said, "Vic, anyone who buys a house will need a life assurance policy at some point."   That led to me getting involved with various companies on a low basic salary /commission basis before stumbling into HSBC in 1994.

My brother has been a fantastic source of inspiration to me. Neither of us believe in the mantra of ‘you are the average of the eight closest people to you.’  Plough your own field and you can always look up and see what people are doing either side of you if you are built that way.

I am very family focused and providing for my wife and children is my number one priority. This certainly wasn't the case before I was married! It was definitely ‘Me, me, me and me,’ but bringing children into this world (I have four wonderful children who make me proud every day), made me think again about my life.

The best piece of advice I would give others is

“Don’t look at others; look at yourself.”  Benchmark against yourself and those that are nearest and dearest around you.  If they are happy in what you are doing, then you will ultimately be happy.

The worst piece of advice I’ve heard is

 “Just do it at all costs.”

From a monetary perspective this might sound like it makes sense, but if you are not careful, which I was not, you soon realise that you are losing everyone around you as you allow money to be your God. Fortunately, I noticed just in time to keep my friends, but sadly, my first marriage suffered because of it.

What has gone well for me is being my own man and running my own business. I thoroughly enjoyed being an employee of HSBC. I learnt huge amounts; presentation of yourself, how to work in a team, how to articulate yourself, how to manage and make decisions... It has made the transition into owner/director go smoothly, as well as making it easier to deliver an effective 30 second elevator pitch at network events!
One of the things I did that I would never do again is door-to-door sales! Thankfully, if I want to 'cold call' I can use Social media to put my view across, but in the 1980s, the only way you could get your voice heard was to knock on a door. I can't deny that early training has made any 'cold' approach I do far easier.

I’m of the opinion that, if people wanted double glazing, they would go out and get it and if they haven’t got it, there is a reason why. Unlike in my industry, where Government lays out legislation and companies have got to do something.

I know what my clients need and I know how to help them which is very different from trying to sell a product you’re not even sure people want. No, I certainly wouldn’t want to do that again.
In fairness, I have to say that, I could not have achieved my current level of success alone. I have children from my first marriage who are dependent on me, and I have a wife and a four year old son. Both my wife and ex-wife have been willing to accept the infrequency of income.

If someone wanted to start their own business I would just say, “Do it, but realise that you are not going to be an instant success overnight.” There are frogs that you will have to kiss that won’t necessarily turn into princes or princesses, and there is a lot of ground work that you will have to do.  Make sure you have got some money behind you; at least six months’ money in a bank account somewhere.  Go to every networking event you can and put your name out there.  Be confident and positive, but don’t be aggressive and thrust your business card at the first sign of an individual.
Knowing you have money behind you and that the bills are paid gives you an air of relaxation.  It makes you more approachable.  Compare that to someone who is very tense and ready to dive into any conversation.  As they extend their hand for you to shake, you find yourself clasping a wet sweaty palm, a dead giveaway that someone is under stress.

As we near the end of my chapter, I go back to my mother. She had an array of fantastic sayings and the one I live by is, “Measure twice and cut once.” Ask yourself, “Is this right, is this good?” And, just before heading full on into it, think again. I personally always look at the worst case scenario, although I know not everyone does.  Some can only see the positives in life.  I, on the other hand, have a healthy fear of failure and a healthy fear of what would be the worst case scenario.  I will always look at that and if I feel I can handle the worst case scenario, whatever that is, then I am able to move on.

I think of my bank account as my manager; it lets me know if what I’m doing is working well for me and my family.   I have created a lifestyle business that, as long as God puts breath in me, I will continue to do. I might slow down and shut my doors eventually. However, right now, I enjoy having the time to find out so much more about people I work with and people who become clients.
As we go on a voyage of discovery, we find out more about each other, and over time develop that wonderful 'know, like and trust' factor - the cornerstone of any business relationship.

And once in a while, something special and out of the ordinary crosses my path.

Last year, I had the opportunity to help right a wrong for a client who had lost a considerable amount of money when his funds were incorrectly invested. Fortunately, investors are protected. However, it sometimes takes more time, effort and sheer determination to resolve this kind of problem than the average man in the street has, especially when they are emotionally attached to the outcome.
It took two years of chasing, but it gave me an immense sense of satisfaction to be able to restore his faith in financial advisors and put him back to where he was in financial terms.

This story has become a part of my CV because I think it illustrates my approach to life and work in general; don’t give up and you will find a way!   If you failed your exams – don't worry. You might have to take the circular route to success, but you'll make it. I eventually got my diploma in Financial services aged 47 (I am 51 now). Yes, it was a lot easier for me at 16 to run out and be as bold as brass in front of a future employer and say, “I will do whatever you tell me you want me to do and do it better than someone with a load of O' levels" than it possibly is now.  But, there will be a 51 year old guy out there, who will be running a business who knows he got where he has by sheer determination and graft and he will give someone a chance because he knows that, “It is attitude, not aptitude that determines altitude.”

Extract from "Go For It! Sixteen SME Leaders Share Their Stories", 2016
available on Amazon at

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How do you photograph watercolours?

This is the answer to a question asked of me by another colleague and friend. I thought it was worth sharing. So how do I approach photographing a watercolour painting like the one below?

Watercolour by Alan Attlesey. Photo Chris Thomas for book "A View from the Lodge"

The first thing to remember is – that the final photo never quite matches reality and will always look different on screen (an RGB colour space) and then in print (a CMYK colour space).

The best you can do is make a good photo that does a fair representation of the original, without under or overselling it.

I recommend the following steps:

  • If you can, avoid having the paintings behind glass.
  • Choose even lighting:
    • either two lamps illuminating the picture from angles of more than 45 degrees from the perpendicular.
    • Or natural lighting in the shade from a bright sunny day – e.g. at a window on the shaded side of the house.
  • Adjust your white balance for the location, exactly where the pictures will be photographed.
  • Place your watercolour on the place to be photographed.
    • You may have to weigh down the edges if there is paper curl.
    • If it’s in a mount, check for unwanted shadows and adjust lighting accordingly.
  • Set your camera lens to a 55 mm focal length (for full frame camera) or greater for each picture to photograph (this avoids curvature distortion).
  • Make sure your camera is absolutely perpendicular to the picture to avoid keystone distortion - the picture sides should be parallel top and bottom and side to side (unless the artist has changed the proportions).
  • Determine the best exposure to include all shades of darkest to the brightest. Watercolours normally have a limited contrast range, so you should be OK.


  • Photograph the watercolour.
    • Take several shots.
    • Bracket exposures if you can.
  • Photograph a colour reference pattern, that you will have available later, at the same location, with the same settings. 
  • Or if you have a linear colour reference, include it in the photo of the watercolour if space allows. I do this for museum work.
  • If you can, check that the photo(s) are all in focus and that there is no unexpected lighting gradient from light to slightly darker from one side of the image or from top to bottom.


  • If you can, colour calibrate your editing screen (it will never be perfect but at least you can minimise colour casts etc.)
    • This can be done automatically, e.g. with a calibrator like Spider Pro.
    • Or by checking your colour reference pattern against the image on screen.
  • If the Watercolour photo looks flat, adjust:
    • The contrast slightly.
    • The vibrance slightly (if you do not have vibrance, carefully use saturation)
  • Sharpen the image slightly (I use the unsharp mask).
    • Ensure you are not introducing bright or dark borders by oversharpening.


  • The images should NOT look BETTER than the original
  • When you send the images to the client, they will always look different on their screen.
  • They will always look different if compared directly to their artwork.
  • If you want to have a reference of how you would like the pictures printed, see below.

If you need prints of the images – Use a printer you can really trust and who will let you have a say in the adjustments of the images for printing.

I hope that this helps!

Best wishes,


Friday, 11 November 2016

Going Underground: Mole's Solution to Freight Chaos

A14 congestion
Hell personified - An Autumnal trip down the A14 to Cambridge, or for that matter, any peak hour trip on our overburdened roads. Particularly the main routes from the container ports on the coasts to the congested arteries into the cities do not just irritate delayed drivers. They impose a financial and logistical burden on businesses striving to get their produce into the shops so that we can buy them.

And it just takes one accident for everything to grind to a halt.

Whatever the era, optimistic futuristic films show shiny cities, with smoothly gliding transporters, efficiently delivering goods and people. How is it, we never seem to get there!?

Yet there is a solution NOW for transporting freight and goods into our cities. A solution that could take them straight off the roads and underground.

This weeks (11/11/16) Huntingdonshire Business Networking event was hosted by Mole Solutions who have an integrated solution for transporting freight, Mole freight pipelines. Stuart Prosser, Technical Director, brought us up to speed on the concept, supported by MD Dr Roger Miles, Development Director Bob Silverthorne and Finance Director Mike Steele.

Stuart Prosser, Mole Solutions
Freight is carried on driverless and motorless individual carts, designed to take either aggregate, pallets or containers. Yes, motorless. The system uses electrically powered linear motors seated between rails. They create an magnetic field that acts upon a plate on the underside of the cart, accelerating or braking as required. No moving parts apart from the wheels. A simple system that requires minimal maintenance.

Crucially, the vehicles travel underground in small tunnels with a small bore, for example about 2 m wide for 2-way tracks. Alternatively larger systems can run overland, for example in moving freight containers in major container ports.

The smaller bore of the tunnels for the Mole Solution makes them much more economical to drill, with less waste needing to be removed. They can not only be constructed under existing roads, they would also provide a convenient route for other underground infrastructure such as water and gas pipes, electric and fibre cabling.

HBNers at the talk
A proposal for Northampton could convert 5km of old railway track into a Mole freight pipeline underground and a new recreational/green path for walkers and cyclists above.

Mole Solutions have test vehicles (see below) and actually ran a test track at Alconbury Weald. A new track is being planned and constructed at another location on this rapidly growing new business site.

Mole freight solution showing vehicle on track

So why do we not have active mole freight pipelines under construction or even planned in the UK?

Well, first, there's the cost - it is an infrastructure project, even if a cost-effective one. Second, there is a reticence by potential clients in the UK to be the first.

There is interest in China and in the US for two major projects. It could therefore well be, that as so many times before, a great British idea is realised and creates benefits outside of its original home.

UK Investors, if you want a bite at the cherry to create a profitable local solution - contact the Mole Solutions team - their website is

In the meantime, I'll just have to watch those optimistic SciFi films.

Remembrance Day: Henry Petre, Aviation Pioneer and the 'Forgotton War' in Mesopotamia

Extracts about the 'Forgotten war' against the Turks in Mesopotamia, taken from "The Family that Flew" by Cambridge author Anne Petre, currently in the final stages of publication by Milton Contact Ltd.

Henry Petre (Formerly of East Anglia and founder of the AFC, later the Australian Air force) left Melbourne on April 14th, 1915 for the greatest adventure, so far, of an eventful life. From there he went to Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf.

The primary purpose of the ensuing campaign was to secure the security of the Anglo-Persian oil wells and the pipeline – all centred near Basra. Later it seems as if there was a secondary objective, to drive the Turks northwards to Baghdad and beyond. After the recent disaster of the Gallipoli landings, a decision was made to secure some success in Eastern Europe and restore confidence in the supremacy of the Western powers. There was a desire to impress the Arabs of the region and in the area between the Ottoman Empire and India. But the fight with the Turks in Mesopotamia was always seen as one of the ‘sideshows’ of World War One.

In Basra, Henry was joined by the rest of his unit and they were in battle five days later. The unit was small: 4 pilots and about 40 mechanics, some of whom were extremely skilful. They had two repair shops mounted on vehicles that were well equipped with lathes, drilling machines, welding plane benches and circular saws. The small force included a number of Indians.

In September 1915, General Townsend, the army commander, tricked the Turks by a brilliant manoeuvre and surrounded the town of Kut. On the junction of important waterways, Kut was of great strategic importance. The aircraft were particularly useful during this action with the pilots conveying intelligence between the different troop commanders. After the battle a new landing ground for aircraft was established at Kut. But the river here was very shallow and there were difficulties moving supplies as the boats were constantly stalling or being thrown into the bank by very strong winds and sometimes overturned. The local river boats were very picturesque but had not been designed as military carriers. There was an extraordinary mismatch between scenes redolent of biblical times and the conflict now taking place over the same desert and rivers with their interlocking waterways and infested marshes. The indigenous Arabs looked biblical.
In October, Henry Petre had several spells in a field hospital with bruises to his face and injury to his left foot. The cause of these injuries is not recorded.

After the capture of Kut, the air reconnaissance was ordered to go in three directions. Reilly in a Martinsyde observed the Turkish forces at Ctesiphon, which was only ten miles south of Baghdad. In what may now be seen as an ill-judged move, in December an advance was made by our forces on Ctesiphon. The force was inadequate; the Turkish kept on sending in reinforcements and the British troops had to retreat and fall back on Kut.

The troops were exhausted when they arrived back at Kut. The Turks surrounded the town and laid siege to it. The air force was based about 80 miles south west at Ali Gharbi. Henry was aided by the air mechanics, who worked unceasingly to keep him airborne in his reliable Martinsyde machine. He made many missions to drop sacks of grain and flour to the beleaguered soldiers. Amazingly, he also dropped some grinding stones for the grain. It was reckoned that in all he dropped 5 tons of flour and some medical supplies. Two Fokker planes with German pilots appeared from the enemy side and tried to interfere with these missions. It must have been a multi-tasked situation to single-handedly pilot the machine, watch out for attacks, and heave sacks of flour and grinding stones from the cockpit to the desperate troops below. He then had to return safely to Ali Gharbi.

Cutlack describes the kind of aeroplane best suited for reconnaissance and for use in the Kut relief missions. He calls it a ‘flying scout’ and says it was best if it was small, a single-seater with high speed and rapid manoeuvrability. (3) However, when such a machine was first fitted with a machine gun, operated by the pilot, there were problems with firing through the propeller. 

Cutlack goes on to describe the qualities needed in airmen as being: ‘Youth, sound sense and good nerve’. He felt that good horsemen had an ability to react very quickly and maintain a sense of control. It was found that men from cavalry units often made good pilots. He also felt that a safe pilot was not necessarily a good fighting airman:

‘He needed to be a bit of a devil but not reckless, with nice judgment of the moment’s risks while flying and fighting, sustained courage and determination without hot headedness, unruffled confidence gained from knowledge of one’s machine’s capacity and the enemy’s ability.’

Henry probably possessed most of these qualities but could never have been described as ‘a bit of a devil’. That sounds more like a description of Edward or Jack. Henry’s two aviator brothers were both excellent pilots but both crashed and died instantaneously from a broken neck. Was there something about Henry’s temperament – an element of caution – that contributed to his long life despite being a courageous airman?

The battle to capture and to hold onto Kut seems central to the Turkish campaign. The loss of machines and fliers meant that for a short time in November 1915 Henry was the only pilot left of the original unit. Henry had a very tough time in Mesopotamia and the citations he received were hard won. Twice he had to have sick leave for attacks of dysentery.

On April 29th, 1916, the British surrendered Kut with its garrison of 9,000 British and Indian troops. A total of 24,000 casualties had been sustained in the battle to hold Kut. A number of men from Henry’s small force had been holed up and became prisoners. Appalling suffering followed for the prisoners of war who were marched by the Turks 700 miles north to Anatolia. Several months later, a Royal Commission found the whole undertaking to capture and hold onto Kut had been a disaster due to lack of adequate forces and proper medical provision.

Henry Petre, Aviation pioneer and founder of the Australian Flying Corps was an outstandingly courageous fighter, as was proved by his being mentioned five times in dispatches, as well as being awarded the D.S.O. and M.C. for his role in the siege of Kut. His brother, Jack Petre was a flying ace fighting in France at the same time. Look out for Ann Petre's 'The Family that Flew' coming soon.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The Apposite 'Addressing Millionaires', by Erich Kaestner, around 1930

First the shock of Brexit, then the rebellion of the ignored blue collar workers in the US. It all reminds me of a brilliant political poem by Erich K√§stner (of Emil and the Detectives fame), written around 1930, Ansprache an Million√§re. I've roughly translated it  - I'm sure others could do better. Here it is:

Why is it that you are waiting,
Till they give your painted wives
And you, and the painted floozies,
A hefty blow upon your skulls.

Why don't you want to better yourselves?
Soon they'll be storming the outside stairs
And with kitchen knives they'll stab you
And hang you from the window sills.

They will chase you into the rivers.
Cries and prayers will be in vain.
They will knock your very heads off.
Then it will be all too late.

Then the fountain jets will redden.
Your backs against the garden walls,
They will come in silence, killing
And no-one else for you will mourn.

How long will you still gather riches.
How long do you want to amass the hoards
Of bars, rolls, stacks of gold and papers,
'Cos you are going to lose them all.

You are the masters of machines and countries.
You took the money and the power.
Why don't you want to change the world
Before they’re knocking at your door?

You don't have to act from kindness.
You're not good and nor are they.
It's not you, the world needs changing.
That’s your duty, your task today.

Man is bad and will remain so.
You don't have to put on wings,
Need not be good, instead be rational,
We are talking about business things.

Your assistance, if provided,
Doesn't help just you alone.
Even when you give to others,
A reward is earned that is your own.

Make the world a better place
Whilst benefiting yourself too.
This is truly, think about it,
Something worth aspiring to.

Make plains fertile, lead, lay tracks.
Organise the world's rebuild.
Oh, were there just a dozen sages
With the means, the cash, the gilts.

But you're not bright, still hesitating.
We're sorry, this you will regret.
Send us a postcard when you're in heaven,
Looking forward to receiving it!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Chris's Life Story from 'Go For It: Sixteen SME Leaders Share Their Stories'

I was born in Sheffield in 1956 and then destined to spend most of my youth abroad. True love had broken the divide between the post-war occupiers in Germany when my father, a young corporal with a sense of humour, married my mother, an unfailingly sunny young German gym teacher. The army moved us from posting to posting and I left Yorkshire at the age of two, my sister was born in France, and I did not return to living in the UK till I was eighteen. We might not have been wealthy financially, but we were rich in love and laughter.

The most important life lesson I learnt was, that people are people, wherever they are. The second lesson was, that people will pigeonhole you to match their preconceptions! As a child I was classed as typically German in an English environment, and quintessentially English in a German one.

The warmest childhood memories came from our years in Singapore. My mother insisted that we didn’t simply live in the army camp but out in the real world. We moved to a bungalow by the beach on the boundary between a Chinese and a Malay village (or Kampongs as they were then known).

This was still a rustic environment, where you could wander past the offerings to the spirits in our banana tree and roam amongst palm leaf thatched huts. You might hear the clicking sound of ma-jong pieces from a current game amongst the men. If the Chinese theatre was visiting, you could squat on the temporary seating with a stick or two of sugarcane to chew, as you watched the masked and marvellously dressed actors whirl through a play, accompanied by strings and cymbals.

“If the tide was out, there would be mudskippers ogling you with their bulging eyes, before skipping away to safety.”

It was here that I first remember an interest in living things. Wandering under a searing blue sky along the beach you might find large horseshoe crabs, living fossil survivors from the Ordovician 450 million years ago. If the tide was out, there would be mudskippers ogling you with their bulging eyes, before skipping away to safety. Above all, there was the shell mountain at the nearby lime works. You could climb – crunch, crunch – this schoolboy collector’s dream and never tire of finding the next most beautiful seashell, only to discard it for an even more precious one.

Posted back to Germany, the first years in the comprehensive BFES Kent School were marred by bullying, an inevitable consequence of being an outsider who actually liked to learn. I also spent some time in the German education system, which by contrast was competitive and results driven, and challenging in a different way.

Lacking Latin, I could not advance to a higher German school after achieving the German ‘O’ level equivalent. Instead, I went to a Waldorf School, based on the anthroposophical principles of Rudolf Steiner. A great and holistic experience. Once scared of maths, I learnt trigonometry here without difficulty. We spent a week mapping one of the small North Frisian Halligen islands. There, in the evenings, we sat in a circle, reading out or telling ghost stories as there was no TV or radio in the youth hostel where we slept. It was said that in times of storms and high tides, the people on one island would pray that the dykes on neighbouring Halligen would fail, so the sea level would drop and their island would be spared flooding.

I returned to forces education at BFES Queen’s School, Rheindahlen, to do my ‘A’ levels in the three sciences. Those years attracted a more eclectic group of students with, for some reason, a fascination and enjoyment of the Goon Show. We promptly renamed ourselves and one class had three Neddy Seagoons, differentiated as Mk I, Mk II etc.

We had an enthusiastic Welsh biology teacher with the slight impediment that the sight of blood made him faint. We only discovered in a practical on blood group testing. My friend (Neddy Mk I) pricked his finger and only then remembered that he was a haemophiliac. All the while he produced a gentle but steady stream of blood drops. Desperately trying not to faint, our teacher had to tell us what to do from a distance.

The decision loomed on what to do next, after my ‘A’ Levels. I found myself trying to choose universities in a country that I had not lived in since the age of two. Our biology teacher was so enthusiastic about ‘The Mountains, the Sea and the Daffodils’ that I put down Aberystwyth as one of my choices.

Coming to live in the UK, and Wales in particular, was a bit of a culture shock. Apparently, the world was not divided into Officers & kin and Lower Ranks & kin (to which I belonged). There were apparently still strong tribal groupings known as the English, Scots, Irish and of course, the Welsh. In 1976, I had landed in Aberystwyth on the border between North and South Wales – Diolch Yn Fawr! It was said that you either loved or hated the place as a student and that a good 30% departed during the bleak winter days.

I loved Aberystwyth. When not studying, you could go down the hill to the windswept promenade. On really stormy days, the crashing waves would break upon the sea wall and throw pebbles over the top of the three storey Alexandra Hall into the street behind. On calm days, you could wander along the cliffs. A good friend David, a mature law student from Blaenau Ffestiniog, introduced me to the Welsh hills and the graveyards where his stonemason father and grandfather had work on display. Having learnt the art of working stone by hand too, he would proudly comment with a grin, “I helped on that one”.

My knowledge of Britain grew gradually. I began with a line from Dover to London to Birmingham to Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth – the route to and from Aber’ from Germany. Over time, new places were then mentally slotted in – north or south of the line.

Time flew. In the final year I met my future wife, Jane, and also had to come to a decision on what to do next. I enjoyed researching for my Biology degree final year and began looking around for possible PhD studentships. In 1979, an Aberystwyth offer came through first, so I reluctantly forewent the opportunity of a Zoology PhD and living in the red-light district of Southampton (where the cheapest student digs were, apparently).

Professor Mike Hall ran a group researching plant hormones, in particular, ethylene. Ethylene (a gas) is the hormone plants use to stimulate DEATH. A bit drastic you might think, but very important. For example, a row of cells at the base of a leaf is programmed to DIE to help the leaf cut itself off from the rest of the tree and fall in autumn.

Science at the time thought, that if there is a hormone, there has to be a receptor molecule within the plant to which the hormone binds. I was part of a team trying to characterise and isolate this ethylene receptor. My first important lesson was to learn about beans and bean plants. Beans bind ethylene. If you want to know if a plant is a bean plant – I’m the man to ask. (Ethylene also ripens fruit. I can now safely identify a banana).

By the end of my PhD, I had convincingly described an elongated molecule that bound ethylene. The next PhD generation could take up the reins.

My first postdoc position was at the former National Vegetable Research Station in Wellesbourne, near Stratford upon Avon. Here I worked on bigger molecules, plant viruses, as part of a team run by Dr Ron Fraser.

This was the dawn of genetic engineering in plants. Our aim was to isolate and sequence the DNA of a particular plant virus; one that actually made plants resistant to serious virus attack. We were pipped to the post by researchers at the John Innes Centre if I remember correctly. However, in addition to bean plants (and bananas), I could now identify tobacco and tomato plants.

The experience did win me a permanent post at Twyford Plant Laboratories (TPL), in Somerset. I joined a team as a Senior Research Scientist looking at different ways to make plants resistant to viruses. Jane and I lived under the shadow of Glastonbury Tor and possibly on a ley-line. One of my memories is cycling to work across snowy country lanes, having to stop every 20 metres or so to remove the snow that had clogged up the wheels to immobility.

TPL was a commercial company and I successfully survived two cycles of redundancy before joining the part of the company that was bought out and transplanted to Cambridge. At the new opening we asked our new owners why they had bought us. “Well, it was either buy you or pay for a week’s advertising campaign in a major newspaper!” That put us in our place.

I worked on a number of projects, the most important of which was trying to make potatoes resistant to potato cyst nematodes – a century old epidemic still haunting our fields. My team collaborated with Leeds and York Universities. The company ran GM trials, so we had days out of the lab planting potatoes in cold April mud and harvesting under searing summer sun. I now know a potato plant too when I see one!

At the end of 2003, the parent company decided to direct its efforts elsewhere and I was part of redundancy round III, after 20 years in research. In a sense it was a relief. I enjoyed the lab work, but now it was all project management, whilst others did the fun lab stuff.

I had learnt all about DNA, cloning and sequencing, GMOs etc. I could now identify beans, tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes and Arabidopsis (a weed important in plant science) and of course, bananas.

What could I do next?

Time for something totally different! I set up my own company, Milton Contact Ltd. My aim: To help UK businesses enter the German Market, using my intercultural skills.

Now – I run a publishing company, but that’s another story!

What would I say to others wanting to set up their own business?

If you are thinking about setting up your own business, do your research, seek advice and Go For It! If you don’t try you can’t succeed.

There are many free or low-cost courses for business start-ups. It’s a good way to learn and meet others in the same boat.

I would also recommend you look around for a friendly business network. The support, information and experience that is shared is invaluable – and you make good friends too. I’ve been a member of the Huntingdonshire Business Network (HBN) for 12 years.

What's Chris doing now?

Chris is Director of Milton Contact Ltd and says: We turn your dream of a book into a reality. Reading your manuscript for the first time is always exciting. We do so in confidence and give you constructive feedback on its strengths, offering suggestions to make it even better where appropriate. 

You can have as much or as little help as you want. Together, we format and set your text and pictures, and offer advice on book size, font designs and choice of colour or monochrome. We can add flourishes such as drop- or illuminated capitals and additional artwork. We also design book covers and can help you with the all-important teaser text on the back of the book. We then find a suitable and cost-effective printer for you. Alternatively, we can create an e-book. 

The book is registered through its ISBN and 6 archival copies are deposited with the British Library and the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries. All income from book sales is yours. You retain the book content copyright.

Go for it contains 16 stories that show, whatever your beginnings, you always have the choice to follow a new path.

Whether you are in business yourself, a new start-up, thinking of changing your job, or a school leaver taking the first steps into work, we hope this book will encourage you to build YOUR new future: Go For It!

For more information or to order a physical paperback copy, please contact: Alternatively, you can get the Kindle version here:

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Steve Lockwood – Between the Tracks: Music Review

Steve Lockwood: Between the Tracks
Settling down for an afternoon’s book editing of a new publication, I thought I would play the CD by world renowned Harmonica virtuoso Steve Lockwood - Between the Tracks (2011) - as a cheerful background. What better, I mistakenly thought, than having a bouncy harmonica and vocals to while away the paragraphs scrolling before me.

It was all going swimmingly well, till track 6, Milonga. This rendition of Astor Piazolla’s original composition was transformed by Steve Lockwood and Demmy James into a haunting melody that immediately grabbed my ears by ears and shook my head to gain full undivided attention. The Harmonica sings above a base rhythm and a piano accompaniment that preys upon your mind with unexpected dissonances.

Track 8 is a beautiful harmonica acoustic rendition of George Gershwin’s Summertime. The ¾ time base and accompaniment give an additional pulse, lending an edginess or feeling of portent – a great interpretation. Again a production with Demmy James.

My concentration was again diverted to give full attention to the short acoustic guitar and harmonica duet simply called Intro 414 – one of Steve’s own compositions. Guitarist Chris Newman and Steve weave in and around each other in what I found simply a beautiful piece of music.

Musical taste is a highly individual thing – I am glad I bought the album, after my Harmonica Workshop with Steve Lockwood last weekend in St Ives, just for those three tracks, even if it reduced my work efficiency for this afternoon! Oh – the rest of the Album ain’t half bad either. In particular look out for the other collaborations with both Demmy James and Chris Newman.

You can sample all the tracks on the album Steve Lockwood: Between the Tracks and make up your own mind here:

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Spotted Wing Drosophila present in Milton, Cambridgeshire

The soft fruit pest, Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii) has become established in the UK since my article back in 2012 High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created from two specimens captured from my garden in Milton, Cambridge.


This August, I set a fruit fly trap in my garden in Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK and captured my first Spotted Wing Drosophila. I found one male and two female SWD. In total the trap captured 39 insects, of which 36 were drosophila (fruit fly) species, three of which were SWD. High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created.

Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD)

Dorsal view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Ventral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Ventral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Male Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)

Female Spotted Wing Drosophila

Dorsal view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Dorsal view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Lateral view: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Detail with serrated ovipositor: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)
Detail with serrated ovipositor: Female Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD, Drosophila suzukii)


This August, I set a fruit fly trap in my garden in Milton, Cambridgeshire, UK and captured my first Spotted Wing Drosophila. I found one male and two female SWD. In total the trap captured 39 insects, of which 36 were drosophila (fruit fly) species, three of which were SWD. High resolution views of a male and female SWD were created.
The insects had been trapped in an apple juice/white vinegar mixture, spiked with a few drops of fairy liquid to kill the insects. The mixture was in a sealed plastic bottle, pierced with about 3 mm diameter holes. The bottle was suspended from an apple tree for a week from 22 August.

The insects were rinsed with water in a sieve and then stored in water with some white vinegar and 10% isopropanol overnight.

Individual flies were floated in a home made cavity slide (o-rings adhered to a microscope slide with paraffin wax), oriented just under the surface meniscus (dorsal side up/ventral side up/lateral view) and covered with a cover slip.

A series of between 130 to 190 photographs were taken through the focus from the base of the insect to the closest surface, using a Reichert Zetopan microscope with a 4x objective, 5x eyepiece and a mounted Nikon SLR. The images were used to create focus stacks with Heliconfocus software. Images were edited for contrast and colour balance an sharpened.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Films and fussy eaters at the University of Duisburg-Essen

Films and fussy eaters at the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre. Impressions from a tour of their laboratories with Isabelle Heker and interesting conversations along the way. The department specialises in working on aquatic micro-organisms, which can range from pathogens to bugs that can clean up the environment. One of the features of many aquatic micro-organisms is that they live in Biofilms, strange and complex environments that can dramatically alter the properties of the organisms within them.

The initial intention was to visit my friends, the Hekers, for a bit of photography for an afternoon. Daughter Isabelle Heker invited me to come along and see the work that she and others were conducting at the labs in the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre.

The obligatory safety talk with Dr Jost Wingender, Head of the Department of Pathogens in Biofilms, brought back memories of when I was a Biological Safety Officer for a biotech company! Inevitably, it segued into conversations about Dr Wingender’s work. One of his interests is viruses that attack bacteria, also known as phages, and their behaviour in biofilms.

An iridescent biofilm on the surface of a fish tank (Wikipedia)
Many micro-organisms, including bacteria, live in biofilms, making rocks slippery, furring the leaves of water plants or coating your teeth with plaque.

They are often surrounded by a slime, whose composition can vary according to the species and the substrate they are on. The scientific term for this slime is EPS, short for extracellular polymeric substances.

Just like there is a whole ecology and range of environments in a forest, that changes from the soil to the tops of the tree canopy, there is considerable variation in the EPS from its external interface with water to the bottom layer, adhering to a substrate. There are gradients of oxygen, nutrients and acidity.

In the wild, the ecosystems within the EPS are created by different microscopic species either helping each other by producing complementary nutrients or degrading toxins and natural antibiotics – or they can be in competition for food and resources.

Back to phages and viruses. The EPS also binds contaminants and viruses, concentrating them. As this can happen with human pathogens, it means that biofilms could be far more infectious than the more diluted pathogens free-floating in water. Suddenly, Dr Wingender’s work is a lot more relevant to us.

S.aureus biofilm on an indwelling catheter (Wikipedia)
On to the lab tour. Dr Martin Mackowiak led and also talked a bit about his work. Knowing what species of micro-organisms are present in a biofilm and how many there are is not that easy. Furthermore, the populations can change with age. Imagine being in a rocket up in space looking down on to the world below. With a high powered telescope you might just about make out moving shapes as tiny dots, it is hard to distinguish between say the people, pigeons and pets out in a city or between different farm animals out in the fields.

Fortunately, micro-organisms contain DNA. What’s more, the EPS, the slime also contains fragments of DNA, from dying cells or even deliberately secreted. The DNA will be present in very small quantities. However, using a method familiar from my lab days, quantitative PCR, you can get a good measure of how many of the scant DNA molecules from different species are present. Martin had just harvested a batch of biofilm he’d cultured over weeks in readiness for analysis. It was also fun to see equipment gathering dust that in my day we would have drooled over, like the Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis kit, and machines that were still very familiar to me in current use.

Most importantly, Isabelle was able to tell me about her graduate project. Of the myriads of species of bacteria in water, there are many fussy eaters, of which some are able to degrade pollutants, such as hydrocarbons. It’s vital to understand how they do this before scaling up any method. Isabelle’s project was to identify some of the breakdown products from one pollutant.

First, she had to purify and separate the different breakdown products by size and chemical properties using liquid chromatography – the basic principle is similar to separating the colours out of different felt-tip pens on tissue paper.

Image on left is an example of different leaf pigments separated by chromatography on a plate, CC Flo~commonswiki. Isabelle was using special columns in her work.

The mass of each separated breakdown product was then determined using a mass spectrometer. Each molecule is vaporised, ionised to give it an electric charge and then accelerated toward a detector through a magnetic field. The charged molecules get separated by charge and weight during their flight through the magnetic field and then hit the detector. You can very accurately determine how heavy a molecule is. Isabelle was now at the interesting stage of knowing what sizes of products she is getting.

The puzzle to be solved now is: WHICH is the most likely chemical formula of a breakdown product where there are several with the same mass? This requires a good knowledge of chemistry and logical problem solving. Fortunately, Isabelle is enjoying the challenge and hopes to go on to do a masters in the same department.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours catching up with the new field of water and biofilm biologies. Thank you to Isabelle and all at the University of Duisburg-Essen Biofilm Centre for sharing their time and interests.

Now it was time to go off to meet the others for a glorious walk along the beautiful transformed River Ruhr - full of aquatic life and, of course, Biofilms.