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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide