Keep digging: Prince Philip looks on as David Cameron plants an oak tree in the grounds of Chequers, February 2014. (Photo: Getty)
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Squashed by two fat ladies, Churchill’s choice of oak and “Crinks” the lost Liberal

Notes by the former Gardeners’ Question Time chairman Stefan Buczacki.

I have a particularly fond memory of Clarissa Dickson Wright, who died on 15 March. I was at one of those peculiar gatherings that constituted a BBC programme launch party when I was spotted across a crowded room by Clarissa and Jennifer Paterson, who were there to celebrate what was, I think, the last series of Two Fat Ladies. They bore down on me from two sides until I was pinned against a wall (and I do mean pinned; the ladies were not called fat for nothing) and Clarissa, who was well known for loathing carrots, demanded in a stentorian voice: “Now what do you think of cardoons?” I said they were constantly on my mind.

It wasn’t the sort of thing you forget in a hurry, not least because I am especially fond of cardoons and think them among the lost treasures of the English kitchen. They are relatives of the globe artichoke but you eat the leaf stalk not the flower. The only problem is that, like the wonderful Clarissa and Jennifer, they do take up a lot of room.

 

Premier hearts of oak

A tradition has grown up that serving prime ministers plant a tree at Chequers to mark their term of office. Some seem to do it while still in post, others as they depart. I had the interesting experience a little while ago of visiting the Chequers garden and was intrigued to see who had planted what; and then tried to fathom why.

Margaret Thatcher planted a lime, Tony Blair a field maple, Ramsay MacDonald a cedar and Neville Chamberlain a tulip tree. No, I couldn’t see the connection, either. John Major planted a native oak, although I’m unsure which species. No matter, it is the embodiment of our national strength, something you might have expected of Churchill. In fact, Churchill did plant an oak, but not an English oak. For some bizarre reason and presumably at the suggestion of some civil servant whose knowledge of biogeography was no more sensitive than his knowledge of history, I discovered that in 1955 he planted on the east lawn a specimen of Quercus ithaburensis macrolepis, the valonia oak. And where does the valonia originate? It just happens to be one of the most characteristic forest trees of Gallipoli and the area around the Dardanelles. Someone has much to answer for.

 

Sweet spring

There is a problem with apricots. The problem arises because, like most of my generation, I grew up believing they always came in tins. And, so the logic went, anything that comes in a tin is unlikely to grow in a British garden. Yet how wrong a perception this is, because apricots are in truth much more hardy than their close relatives peaches; and even more importantly they are not affected by the scourge of leaf curl disease.

We have had an apricot tree in our garden for years and, believe me, you can gain no greater culinary Brownie point than serving your guests an apricot flan made from home-grown fruit. To be fair, the flowers can be clobbered by a late frost but we still pick a good crop three years in five; and, having just finished the last of the frozen flans from 2013, I am watching anxiously in the hope that this year’s bounteous blossom makes it to full maturity. Apricots are probably best grown against the shelter of a warm wall but can be successful free-standing. Moorpark is still, to my mind, the best variety.

 

A quietly lustful life

Hands up, anyone who knows anything about or has even heard of Harcourt “Crinks” Johnstone. I do not expect much response because he is the lost Liberal, in neither the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography nor the Dictionary of Liberal Biography and with only the most fleeting entry in Who Was Who. Yet after the party leader Archie Sinclair, Crinks was probably the most prominent Liberal in Churchill’s wartime government. Jo Grimond recalled attending as a young man a hare shoot on Sinclair’s Highland estate where Crinks was another guest: “My most notable memory . . . was of a vast and puffing gentleman heaving into sight . . .” he wrote. And Crinks heaved his way through life, overweight, wealthy, genial, extraordinarily generous and passionately Asquithian – he kept a picture of him by his bed. Sexually he was a non-combatant and once told Margot Asquith he had no use for women, adding that he had loved one man in his life and hated another: Asquith the first and Lloyd George the second. At the start of the war, Churchill dragged him from his wilderness of indolence and good living outside parliament to be secretary for overseas trade. But after his death in 1945 “Crinks” simply slipped from history. Does he have a counterpart today?

 

Ramblers will have a blast

It wasn’t exactly the one that flew over the cuckoo’s nest but it certainly flew over a great many other nests and at least one Wiltshire village last week before returning to earth and leaving a six-foot-wide crater. “It” was the misfired shell, for which someone will have to answer, blasted by an artillery piece some five miles beyond bounds on an army firing range on Salisbury Plain.

But the episode did serve as a reminder of what biodiversity treasures the Ministry of Defence has in its care, and in that respect the instruction for us to “keep out” has preserved not only countless creatures and their nests but some exceptional landscape, too. I can remember the revelation some years ago, seeing for the first time stretches of beautiful Dorset coast such as Worbarrow Bay that had eluded me, having been closed on each previous occasion I’d stayed in the area. But I wonder what impact the present military stringencies will have. Will it mean more access for the public, as ranges are closed and troops not available to man them; or will it bring an increased use of home facilities because overseas ranges are too costly to maintain and visit? 

Stefan Buczacki is a biologist and biographer and a former chairman of “Gardeners’ Question Time”. An updated edition of his “Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants”, co-written with Keith Harris, will be published by Collins in June

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times