31 March 2014: My Father in His Suitcase

An engaging and frank autobiography of an ancient scientist

My father in His SuitcaseMuch more than a biography of one of the titans of tropical botany. Meticulously researched, beautifully written, riveting.

Perhaps The Fates had a hand in it – a boy who rediscovers a father he thought he had lost in, of all places, a well-travelled suitcase intriguingly marked For Kay, wherever he might be. In 1960, John (Kay) Corner left home at age 19 and would never see his father, the noted biologist Edred John Henry Corner, ever again.  I hardly knew him… a difficult man with a temper to whom I never felt close, John recalls. The contents of that suitcase, which he received in 1997, was a hodgepodge of old photographs, maps, school reports, letters, sketches and scrap books. Fittingly, and perhaps with slight tongue-in-cheek, John called his father’s suitcase Pandora’s Box, harbouring all the world’s evils and also its salvation – hope. On the verge of discarding the suitcase, a last minute change of heart compelled him to open it, and from out of the disjointed contents was born a son’s erudite and affectionate biography of his father.

father-2Edred Corner was one of the most colourful and productive biologists and mycologists of the 20th century. His career began in 1929 as Assistant Director of the Straits Settlements Singapore Botanic Gardens, where he trained monkeys to collect plant specimens from the treetops of the rain forest. He published Wayside Trees of Malaya, a classic for field naturalists. He played key role in the creation of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and proposed Kinabalu Park which led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After WW2, he returned to Cambridge University and was appointed Professor of Tropical Botany in 1965. He died in 1996.

What goes round comes around. Despite the 46 years of separation, John Corner faces his late estranged father again in the unlikeliest of places. My Father in His Suitcase is a well written story of a brilliant yet impossibly difficult man who was so dedicated to his work nothing came between them, including family. Through his short journey to the past, John finally comes to terms with his father, discovering an admiration for his work and reconfirming his place among the world’s greatest scientists. My Father in His Suitcase is available now from Areca Books.