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My boss, the Chief Engineer, was heavily invested in the waste burning project. My council workload was becoming a problem for him. He came to discuss the situation with me, saying he was finding that when he needed to discuss work with me I was not around. Could we come to an arrangement whereby my council business would be confined to specific days of the week? I should point out that, up to this point, the company had been extremely generous in allowing me time off with pay for these duties, subject to my returning the council attendance allowance to them.
A subsequent meeting with the Site Director resulted in the suggestion that a voluntary redundancy package could be put together should I wish to leave. For me the suggestion was welcome, provided the terms were right. It would enable me to embark on my preferred career as a writer and/or politician. When the terms were put to me, they were indeed generous. A tax free lump sum, roughly equivalent to two years salary. In addition, my qualifying service for my future pension would be increased from 18 to 20 years and the pension would be paid from age 60, not 65.
Coincidentally, the company’s pension had been a subject I had addressed in an article for the Senior Staff Association magazine a few years before. A number of the members were exercised about what seemed like inadequate communication between the executive and the membership. I and one of the Chemists from the R&D department in Coventry had, independently of each other, proposed that a members’ newsletter or magazine was needed. “Why don’t the pair of you get together and produce it?” was the challenging response, and we did.
There was a general feeling that Courtaulds’ staff pension scheme did not measure up to those offered by the civil service and other “blue chip” companies. I investigated and concluded that our scheme was – I think my words were – “disappointingly average,” backing that conclusion with data gleaned from various sources. You could call it my first piece of investigative journalism! The basic principle of all such schemes, based on rules established by the tax authorities because the contributions were tax exempt, was that the pension earned by the combined contributions of employer and employee, extending over 40 years, should not exceed 2/3 of your final salary.
More than 30 years later, now that I have been in receipt of a pension from the scheme for 17 years, I have to say I am grateful to have been a member whilst I was an employee.
To her credit Freda supported my decision to leave my safe, secure job. Ian was now well settled in his position as a student nurse, living in Lincoln and making new friends. It would not be easy living on the meagre attendance allowance and Freda’s salary from the Spastics’ Society, but the lump sum redundancy payment would yield some income if wisely invested and I hoped to be able to generate some additional income from writing.
I left Courtaulds shortly before my 45th birthday in November 1986. One of the first things I bought on the strength of my severance package was a Word Processor. Since the early 1980s I had had access to an Apple 2 desk top computer at work and, more recently, this had been replaced by a Hewlett Packard PC which was networked with new HP mainframe computers.
The Amstrad Word Processor came in two versions – the basic 256 kb machine with one built-in floppy disc drive and the larger 512 kb machine with two disc slots. I opted for the 512. The main advantage of this being that you did not have to keep swapping discs. To explain that properly, it is necessary to realise that neither 256 nor 512 kb of on-board memory allowed for any software to be permanently installed. You used one disc to load the software, then saved the files you created to a separate floppy disc. This was infinitely easier with two discs than with one.
I had become quite accomplished at using Lotus 123 spreadsheets for work so my colleagues purchased, as their leaving gift for me, a spreadsheet programme that would run on the Amstrad. Because of the limited on-board memory you had to create your spreadsheet from scratch, defining how many columns and lines you would need. A long way from the seemingly infinite number of columns, lines and sheets that can be utilised on present day spreadsheets!
The council had 8 main committees, so each of us 4 Liberals held two “spokesmanships”. In my case these were Education and Economic Development. Education was the largest committee, overseeing a service with the largest budget and the largest complement of staff. Membership included non-voting representatives from the teaching unions and from the Church, who were sponsors of many of the schools.
The committee was sub-divided into “Schools” and “Post Compulsory”. The Schools sub-committee dealt with everything to do with the many schools in the county; Post Compulsory dealt with everything else – FE Colleges, adult education, pre-school education. Membership of that sub-committee was delegated to one of the other three Liberals.
Economic Development included responsibility for Humberside Airport, the small regional airport in North Lincolnshire which was owned and operated by the County Council at that time. (It has since been privatised).
The council operated on a three month cycle. Each committee met once every three months; decisions made were ratified by a meeting of the full council, also four times a year. To begin with this did not seem too onerous: two committee meetings and one council meeting over a three month period – one meeting per month – should be easy enough to fit in. But that does not take account of the sub-committees or the airport committee. Still only 20 meetings per year. Soon it became clear that each committee or sub-committee had a number of working parties and consultative meetings, special sittings to deal with single major issues. Before long I was having to take a couple of days off work every week.
Meetings would sometimes be arranged at short notice. We had an agreement in place to allow for stand-ins but all four of us were in the same situation with more meetings than they could manage without adding a stand-in role. In any case, the stand-in would be unfamiliar with the issues to be discussed and would at least need a briefing which would take up additional amounts of time for both of us.
We could, and did, arrange such extra meetings so that they took place on a day when the members involved were in the meeting venue (usually County Hall in Beverley) for a pre-scheduled meeting, but that could mean that a morning became a full day. It was not unusual for me to spend an hour at work in the morning before setting off on the 45 minute drive to Beverley for a 10 am meeting then driving back during what should have been my lunch hour, eating a sandwich as I drove. Or the reverse – driving to Beverley during the lunch hour, eating a sandwich en-route. No wonder I began to have pains in my gut!
At work around this time, I was in charge of an interesting project to do with recycling. I have already mentioned that the company operated 4 coal fired boilers on the site. In the early 1980s the company entered a partnership with Grimsby Borough Council under which the council installed a waste separation plant on a site about a mile from ours. On our site a second waste filtering facility was installed and one of the boilers had its coal feed conveyor system modified to take combustible waste, sprinkled on top of the coal.
This was working reasonably well until it was decided to add chopped, worn vehicle tyres to the mix. These were supplied by a business based on a disused airfield several miles to the north. The problem that arose, and that I was asked to investigate, was that the pieces of rubber, being much larger than the crushed coal, tended to get caught up in the discharge chute at the bottom of the coal bunker. This was especially true when everything was wet, both materials being stored outside.
This was the only time I ever worked shifts. I did it throughout the month of January. The boiler house operatives had threatened to down tools because unblocking the chutes took up too much of their time. Adding me to the workforce was meant to provide the additional labour whilst allowing me to see the problem at first hand prior to devising a solution.
Shifts were worked 7am to 3pm, 3pm to 11pm, and 11pm to 7am, rotating 2 mornings, 2 afternoons, 2 nights so that you would, for example, begin the week on 7 to 3, have Wednesday morning off then work 3 to 11 on Thursday and Friday, have Saturday off then work 11pm to 7am through the rest of the weekend. A two day break would follow before the whole cycle recommenced on Wednesday. I only did it for a month and found it extremely disrupting. How people who worked it permanently coped I have no idea.
Through the month, rubber was only introduced to the mix whilst I was on duty. We tried different proportions of rubber to coal and reached the conclusion that burning rubber without coal was the best solution. However, the way that coal was delivered to the front of the boiler needed adapting in order to handle the rubber, together with a means of easily switching between the two. I worked with one of our draughtsmen to produce a design which we tested through several iterations over a number of months, eventually arriving at a solution that worked.
The emissions from our chimney were tested and found to be within legal limits for toxic pollutants, meaning the project could be declared a success.
34 years on from my election to Humberside County Council, as one of four Liberals holding the balance of power, I cringe at my naivety. I recall being interviewed for the local TV. Asked what I hoped would be better about Humberside at the end of my four year term of office I struggled to come up with an answer and produced something pretty vague about giving people a bigger say in the decisions we took.
One certainty in politics is that everyone thinks they can do better than the current crop of politicians at all levels of government. That was certainly the belief I had on entering politics. It was not long before I came across a number of people who felt the same and found myself explaining that it is not as simple as it seems from what you read in the papers. Quite early on I invited a critic, someone who had written scathingly about the council in a letter to the Grimsby Telegraph, to accompany me on my next briefing session with the Director of Education so that he would have a better understanding of the kind of problems we had to grapple with. To his credit, that man wrote a second letter to the Grimsby Telegraph expressing his appreciation for what I had done.
We had access to the experience of Liberals on other councils where there was no party with an over all majority. These advised strongly that we should not seek alliances with either of the other two parties and this policy was endorsed nationally by the Liberal Party. We might be only 4 men, but together we represented about a quarter of all of the votes cast in the election; we had our own policy priorities, some of which were shared with Conservatives, some with Labour. We would need to consider each decision on its merits, not vote consistently with only one of the other parties.
This proved hard for the others to accept. They were used to a situation where the casting vote, if needed, was the Chairman’s – normally it would not be needed since each service committee would, like the council, have a majority of members from one party. For them this was a new and strange situation. We had to persuade the other parties that, for the next four years, committees would have equal numbers of Labour and Conservative members plus one Liberal; the committee’s chair person would not have a casting vote, the Liberal member would.
To begin with, Labour would not accept committee chairmanships on that basis, so we supported Conservative chairmen (they did not offer any women for these positions.) That lasted until the setting of the first annual budget early in 1986.
There is an endemic problem with the way local government is funded in the UK, one that is, if anything, worse now than it was in the 1980s. A mixture of government allocation and local property tax means that any reduction in the government allocation has to be met, either by a disproportionate amount raised locally, by cuts in services, or by charging for some services. Moreover, there are certain services the council has a statutory duty to provide and which cannot, therefore, be cut, which means that other services are particularly vulnerable to cuts and/or charges. Every such enforced decision – increasing taxes or charges, or cutting services – is bound to make the local politicians unpopular.
The education department, for example, was legally bound to provide education for children aged between 5 and 16 – and beyond for those able to benefit from continuing full time education. Adult education and provision for under 5s were therefore extremely vulnerable to any cuts in the education budget. Councillors on the political right were especially scornful of such provision. Still clinging to old fashioned notions about women’s roles, they believed that, should a mother choose to return to the workplace, she must pay for whatever provision was made for the care and education of her infants until they reached the statutory age for starting school. Likewise, adult education was regarded by the same individuals as a hobby activity which should not be tax-payer funded.
Similar arguments were used in the Social Services area with regard to the provision of home care services.
We were not prepared to support such policies and joined with Labour in voting down the budget proposed by the Conservatives, whereupon they resigned the chairmanships. Labour accepted the chairmanships (including one female) on our terms. That remained the position for the rest of the four year term.
There is nothing in ordinary life that I can compare to the excitement of an election day and its culmination in the tension that accompanies the counting of votes. The canvassing that takes place in the lead up to the election is far more about identifying your supporters than selling yourself and your policies. When election day arrives you use that information to make sure that all of those who have promised support actually turn up at the polling station. Of course, you cannot know for certain who they cast their vote for, but the fact that they have voted, having previously stated that vote would be for you, gives you reason to hope.
Posters, too, are a guide to the strength of support. Unlike in many other countries, in the UK candidates are not permitted to place posters on street furniture. They are only allowed on private property. Where a house is close to the footpath that means a window. Where there is a front garden it could be a stake in the ground. Either way, it is a positive indication that at least one person in the household supports the advertised candidate.
In the last few days of the campaign lists of supporters and their addresses and voter ID numbers are made – these days I am sure this is done on computers, in the 1980s it was still done using ball point pens and carbon paper.
Helpers are positioned at each polling station where they politely ask each voter for their polling number. This information is then returned to a central point, the “committee room”, where those of your supporters who have voted are crossed off the list. Other helpers are sent out to knock on the doors of supporters – or they are telephoned – to remind them of the importance of voting and to offer a lift to the polling station. This activity becomes more and more hectic as the time approaches for the polls to close. By that time you have some idea of how many of your claimed supporters have voted. And, probably, a fair idea of what percentage of the total that is. It is only at the count that the accuracy of your estimate will be revealed.
The count for Cleethorpes elections traditionally took place in the Town Hall. This was true for County Council elections as well as Borough Council elections. Counts for the County were carried out in each of the constituent Boroughs and Districts. Our only information about what was happening in those other centres came from the local radio – there were no mobile phones with which to communicate with our colleagues across the county.
The counting procedure begins with the counting of total votes cast for each electoral division. The voting papers are then separated into piles for each candidate. In May 1985, in the division for which I was seeking election, the Town Clerk (Chief Executive Officer), in his capacity as returning officer overseeing the election, chose to count the votes of the sitting candidate first. That number amounted to rather less than 1/3 of the total votes cast.
I was immediately excited – I could not see how the other candidate had received more than 1/3 of the total, which would mean that I had. As the counting of the remaining papers continued I paced up and down the corridor outside the council chamber, hardly daring to believe that I was about to be declared the winner, but mentally rehearsing my acceptance speech anyway.
In due course the fact of my election was confirmed and announced. No other Liberal was as successful in Cleethorpes and, we quickly learned, the same was true in Grimsby. Later, listening to the radio as the final results were declared, we discovered 3 other Liberals had been elected, alongside 35 Conservatives and 36 Labour candidates. Liberals held the balance of power – effectively the casting vote – and thoughts immediately centred on how we could best use this power in the interests of the County.
I need now to provide an outline of the responsibilities of the different levels of local government in England at that time. Counties oversaw the education service, from kindergarten to third level and adult education; Social Services, notably children’s homes, nursing homes, family support and home caring – although there were private sector nursing homes there were also several council run homes. These were the two largest in terms of budget and number of employees.
Police and Fire Services, Economic Development, Libraries and Leisure, and major roads maintenance were also under the auspices of the County Council which covered a region with a population of about 850,000 and an area of 3,500 km²
District Councils were responsible for Housing, local parks and recreation, planning, local roads and footpath maintenance, refuse collection and disposal.
The County Council operated through seven committees, each responsible for a specific service, with oversight by an eighth committee, the Policy Committee, which consisted of the chairs of each of the service committees.
The first task for the Party group in the new council was to elect a leader who would conduct negotiations that might lead to the formation of a coalition. We chose John, the youngest of the four. He was the most experienced, having been elected to Hull City Council a couple of years before. Originally from Coventry, he had come to Hull to study and stayed, getting a job with the Hull Daily Mail.
Cleethorpes was (indeed, it still is) twinned with Konigswinter in what was then West Germany. The Cleethorpes Liberal Party participated in a number of exchanges with members of the Konigswinter FDP. I recall once writing a speech in English, getting a young member of the FDP to translate it, and then delivering it in German, thanking our hosts for their hospitality. The speech was well enough received though I have doubts about how intelligible my accent made it.
We sometimes discussed the suitability of the match between the two communities. Cleethorpes is a traditional seaside resort and, at the time, was quite run down. Konigswinter is close to Bonn, at that time the capital of West Germany, so full of diplomats, civil servants and lawyers. Our group, made up of teachers and self-employed small traders, had, on the face of it, very little in common with the medical doctors, lawyers and civil servants that made up the German group. Nevertheless we got on very well, thanks, I suppose, to our shared political beliefs and commitment to European “Freundschaft”.
On one occasion I organised a coach shared with members of other groups with Konigswinter “twins” – sports clubs, music societies, amateur theatricals. This must have been for the tenth anniversary of the twinning which was celebrated on both sides. Apart from the events organised by our hosts, I booked a boat trip on the Rhine and Moselle which ended in a village where wine was being dispensed free of charge from a fountain in the square. I don’t think any who went on that trip was disappointed.
Throughout 1984 the main preoccupation of politicians and the media, in the UK, was the miners’ strike and the stand-off between Margaret Thatcher’s government and the National Union of Mine Workers led by Arthur Scargill – a stand-off that frequently turned violent. At Courtaulds’ Grimsby site we had our own steam and power generating plant. There were 9 boilers, 4 coal fired and 5 oil fired. Thus, we were able to choose a fuel, or fuel combination, based around the fluctuations in price of these two. And, when the strike meant we were unable to obtain coal, we could run entirely on oil.
For the rest of the country there was increasing polarisation between those on the right who believed the government had a duty to stand up to what they saw as too much power in the hands of the Unions, and those on the left who saw the government’s action as an attack on the working classes. North East Lincolnshire did not experience this anger in quite the same way as those districts with a mining tradition. But it did impact us in two ways: coal was being imported through the port of Immingham, which was therefore picketed in an attempt to prevent this; and the police brought in from various parts of the country to “keep the peace” on picket lines throughout the Yorkshire coal field were provided with accommodation at a holiday camp on the outskirts of Cleethorpes.
None of this prevented us from campaigning to get Liberal Party candidates elected to Humberside County Council in May 1985. It just meant we had to face rather more abuse when canvassing in certain areas. Nor had some much older issues gone away, fox hunting being one and abortion another. David Steel had, as a very young MP, long before he became party leader, introduced into Parliament the private members’ bill that legalised abortion in England and Wales under certain very specific conditions. That was back in 1968. Sixteen years later it was still something we would occasionally come across when canvassing: “I could never vote Liberal after what David Steel did.” You just had to accept it and move on.
Some people still take a similar view of the Liberal Democrats after their participation in the coalition government from 2010 until 2015. In politics memories are often long when it comes to passionately held beliefs.
Meanwhile, Ian had taken “O” levels and was considering whether to attend college or continue his education in the school’s sixth form. I accompanied him at a meeting with a careers adviser at Grimsby College where we were told that universities give preference to students from school sixth forms over applicants from colleges of FE. Ian duly agreed to enter the school sixth form but it soon became clear that he was unhappy there. The school, too, were not best pleased by his evident lack of interest and they soon parted company.
The next couple of years were difficult for him and us, as he struggled to find a suitable future path as well as with fraught relationships with young women. To be honest it was Freda who did the “heavy lifting” as I was preoccupied with Liberal Party affairs. Eventually he saw advertised a selection day for nurses at a large Psychiatric hospital in Lincoln and decided to attend. On his return he said he thought he had done okay, even in the ‘practical’ session on the wards for elderly mentally infirm patients. He wasn’t sure if it was something he wanted to do should he be offered the chance.
In due course a letter arrived saying that he had been accepted; that the September intake, for which he had applied, was fully subscribed but that he could join the January intake. Meanwhile he could, if he wished, join the staff of the hospital as a nursing assistant. His decision to accept led indirectly to our decision, more than two decades later, to come to live in Ireland after my retirement.
Also around this time, a drop in demand for Courtelle dictated a decision by the Board to close South Factory. I feared redundancy but was reprieved by being offered a post as Development Engineer, attached to a group of young graduates who were working on a number of innovations aimed at increasing productivity and quality of the Courtelle product, and exploring new markets. My role was to turn their ideas into practical working solutions. They were based in Coventry but seconded to Grimsby for the implementation of the programme.
It ought to be obvious that, if 5% of everything you produce is sub-standard and has to be destroyed or, at best, sold at below cost, reducing that 5% to 3% or 2% represents a significant increase in over-all profitability. And, if the product can be enhanced, making it suitable for a high end use, it can be sold at a higher price. Those were the principals that we were applying. It probably seems archaic now, but some of the things we did involved introducing computerised control systems with software running on a Commodore Pet!
It was in conversations with some of the Coventry “boffins” that I first heard the phrase “fuzzy logic”. I still have only the vaguest notion of what it is but one of the IT experts on the team was convinced it was the “next big thing” in control theory. It seems she was right. According to Jacoby Carter of the National Biological Service’s National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, La., writing in The Scientific American,
“Fuzzy set theory has been used in commercial applications of expert systems and control devices for trains and elevators; it has also been combined with neural nets to control the manufacture of semiconductors. By incorporating fuzzy logic and fuzzy sets in production systems, significant improvements have been gained in many AI systems. This approach has been particularly successful with ambiguous data sets or when the rules are imperfectly known.”
Political activity continued to fill my waking hours outside of work, including working unpaid in the bar of the Cleethorpes Liberal Club and assisting with a redesign of the upstairs back room to turn it into a games room for younger members who were also encouraged to become involved in political campaigns. Nationally the Young Liberals had always been an important element within the Party. I persuaded Ian and his friends to put together a motion for submission to the annual party conference. At my prompting, they chose third world development as their theme. The motion was accepted by the conference committee and “composited” with several others. My first, and only, televised public speaking engagement was at the 1984 Liberal Party Conference where I spoke about the indebtedness of developing countries and the need for some level of debt forgiveness.
The pattern of local elections in that part of the country at that time was as follows: in Grimsby one third of the councillors stood down in each of three successive years, in Cleethorpes the whole council was re-elected every four years as was the whole of the county council. Cleethorpes elections took place midway between county elections, which occurred on the year without a Grimsby council election. In case that’s difficult to follow: County Council elections took place in 1981, 1985 and 1989. Cleethorpes Borough Council elections in 1983 and 1987, Grimsby Borough Council elections occurred in 1982, 1983 and 1984, then again in 1986, 1987 and 1988. All local elections throughout the UK were, and still are, held on the first Thursday of May.
Thus I, and other aspiring Cleethorpes politicians, were able to learn and practice campaigning skills by assisting at Grimsby Borough Council elections in 1982. We also travelled to places where Parliamentary by-elections were being held. Several of these occurred in the months following my having joined the Liberal Party.
The first such election in which I went to assist was in November 1981 in Crosby, Liverpool, where Shirley Williams, a former Labour minister who had lost her seat in the 1979 general election, was standing for the Social Democrats. A month earlier the Liberals had taken a seat from the Tories in Croydon. I recall seeing Ms Williams waving to passers by from the back of a truck and being surprised by her small physical stature which in no way matched her charisma or her intellect.
Glasgow was a bit too far to travel but the third success for the Liberal/SDP Alliance came in March 1982 when another former Labour Party minister, Roy Jenkins, won in the Hillhead constituency. I did travel to Birmingham Northfield, in October of 1982, and Darlington in March of 1983, although our candidates there failed to take those seats, both of which were won by Labour. I was not impressed by the style of the SDP candidate at Darlington, who I thought employed too much “razz-a-matazz” and not enough grass roots campaigning.
Perhaps this was the first sign, for me, of a difference between Liberal and SDP methods. The latter, I suppose, being based on Labour Party traditional campaign techniques. Liberals, by contrast, had introduced something they called “Community Politics”, basically, being active in the community, seeking out issues and leading campaigns to persuade those in power to address them. In that way, individuals acquired a reputation which enabled them to garner votes when they stood for election to the local council.
All this by-election activity, as well as helping get Liberals and SDP candidates into Parliament, also provided us with experience in campaigning in readiness for the Cleethorpes Borough Council election in May of 1983. By then we had selected a Liberal candidate to contest the Parliamentary seat. Originally from Nottingham, Gavin had worked in Grimsby as an operations manager with Ross Foods, one of several frozen food companies with facilities in Grimsby that process fish from Grimsby port and vegetables from the farms of Lincolnshire and neighbouring counties. During that time he had served a period as a Liberal councillor on Grimsby Borough Council.
Because of this background he was the favourite of the Cleethorpes Liberal Party “hierachy” who head hunted him from his new post as an aide to the Chairman of Imperial Group at their London Head Office. Imperial, a company with investments in tobacco and brewing as well as food processing, had taken over Ross Foods some years before. Gavin was, at the time, engaged in investigating the person, or organisation, behind a series of recent significant share purchases which the Imperial board believed signalled an intention to launch a take-over bid. From the autumn of 1982 he returned to Cleethorpes on most weekends to help us with our campaigning.
There was a great deal of speculation that a General Election would be called soon after the fourth anniversary of the Conservative landslide of 1979, to take advantage of the boost in support for the government following the successful Falklands military campaign. Sure enough, a few days after the Council elections in May, the election was called for early June. I was given the role of aide to the candidate and agent, the latter being the same lady that I had button-holed at the pubic meeting a couple of years before, in February 1981. Meanwhile I was one of the candidates fielded for the council election. Once again, I did not secure a seat, but collectively we achieved some success, increasing the number of Liberals on Cleethorpes BC.
The General Election resulted in an increase in representation for the Conservatives in Parliament, the consequence of a split opposition. Nationally the “Alliance” received over 25% of the vote but only 23 seats. Although this was 12 more than previously, it was bitterly disappointing.
Full result: Conservative: vote share 42.4% (down from 43.9%), seats 397 (up from 339); Labour: vote share 27.6% (down from 36.9%) seats 209 (down from 261); Alliance: vote share 24.5% (up from 13.8% gained by the Liberal Party in 1979); seats: 23 (up from 11 held by the Liberal Party in 1979)
How could a party gain seats while losing vote share? How could a party with 27.6% vote share end up with eight times as many seats as a party with 25.4% vote share?
The answer lies in the “First Past the Post” election system used in the UK. Imagine a constituency with 3 candidates contesting the single seat available. With the votes split 42:30:28 there can be only one winner. It is only because of demographics that Labour won any seats, some constituencies being predominantly working class. In such elections a third party can come second everywhere and win no seats at all. On the other hand, the presence of a strong third party can adversely effect the relative positions of the two other parties, which is why the Labour Party lost seats to the Conservatives.
In Parliament the Conservatives, now with a majority of over 140, were free to implement a raft of harsh policies based on the doctrine of “Reaganomics”, and did so.