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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era