Horticulture, fully dressed. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The pleasures of riddling, Hitler’s phone number and another BBC solecism

Plus, why Churchill had no London home.

Among the multitude of column inches and hours of airtime devoted recently to the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death, a small but little-appreciated error has been overlooked. Following his unexpected loss of the general election in July 1945 – and the loss of 10 Downing Street that went with it – Churchill had no London home. He and Clementine needed to act quickly, and soon found a house at 28 Hyde Park Gate, a short street running south from Kensington Gore close to the Royal Albert Hall. Perhaps his new home held resonances from long ago because it was from the neighbouring No 29 that Lord Elgin wrote to him in 1905 confirming his first ministerial appointment, as under-secretary for the colonies.

Finding No 28 a trifle small, Churchill bought the neighbouring property No 27 the following year, 1946, and linked the two, although they remained essentially separate houses. After his death in 1965, English Heritage erected its only official Churchill blue plaque on the wall at No 28, stating Winston Churchill “lived and died here”. It was the late Mary Soames who pointed out to me that this is wrong. Her father died, not as the plaque says at 28 Hyde Park Gate, but at No 27, where the rear downstairs room had temporarily been used as his bedroom.

 

Herr-raising

As its editors say in their preface: “An invitation to appear in Who’s Who has, on occasion, been thought to confer distinction. That is the last thing it can do. It recognises distinction and influence . . .” And though it predominantly recognises distinguished British individuals, truly influential people from elsewhere are also included. Once you are in, you stay in until you die; then pass to a much higher place. It is called Who Was Who. Your entry is frozen at the moment of death, which makes this one of the most riveting of historical reference books. One transfer for the 1946 edition is particularly compelling. We learn that Hitler, Adolf died on 30 April 1945, having married Eva Braun. He confessed to the Catholic religion and, inter alia, had been “Commander-in-Chief of the German Fighting Forces since 1938” and “Supreme War Lord since 1941”. Unlike most of the entrants he did not reveal any recreations – unless a sensitive sub-editor removed genocide and aspirations to world domination. He nonetheless admitted to two addresses: 77, Wilhelmstraße, Berlin and Obersalzberg Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. He wasn’t coy about giving his Berlin telephone number, either. But before you ask, yes, I have. There was no answer.

 

There, there

It’s only human nature that some things on television or radio drive you mad. Perhaps it’s one of those unfathomable car commercials that have nothing do with motoring. Or the question of why I should buy a vehicle from a firm that cannot even bother to make its commercials in the UK: have you noticed that the cars are almost invariably left-hand-drive with foreign number plates?

Yet for me the most irritating thing in broadcasting is now so widespread that it must have emanated in some BBC edict, because it does not occur on ITV or Sky. It is the habit of every BBC newsreader adding “there” to a back reference to a colleague’s report. “Our political editor Nick Robinson – there”, or “Our economics editor Robert Peston – there”. Why? I want to scream back, “I know they are there; I’ve just seen them.” It began on TV but has spread to radio: the Today programme is now littered with theres. But the worst culprit is the omnipresent Huw Edwards, who, even more maddeningly, always adds “for us”: “Our world affairs editor John Simpson – there for us.” Who else would he be “there” for?

 

Gardening peeve

For many years, whenever I edited a gardening script and found the cumbersome word “horticulturalist”, I changed it to the much more pleasing and elegant, two-letter-shorter “horticulturist”. But a while ago, to my shock and horror, I discovered that in some dictionaries and online compilations horticulturalist is an acceptable alternative, and it appears increasingly in gardening books. I find this an ugly and wholly unnecessary waste of a syllable. Old-fashioned as I am, I turned therefore to what is for me still the ultimate source – the Oxford English Dictionary – and was delighted to discover that it does not recognise horticulturalist but did introduce me to an even shorter and older option, albeit now “obsolete, rare”: the 18th-century “horticulist”; though I do think that might be a bit precious, even for me.

Nonetheless, if anyone who earns their living with plants can legitimately refer to themselves as either a horticulturalist or a horticulturist, it prompts the question, to wander into another of my areas of interest, why a naturalist should have to take off his clothes before he, too, can lose the same syllable and become a naturist.

 

Riddle of the soil

As winter gives way to spring, life in the garden stirs and anticipation of propagation and seed-sowing swells in the breasts of gardeners up and down the land. Careful preparation for seed-sowing gives me an opportunity to extol the virtues of one of the more neglected but most satisfying of gardening tasks and tools. Far too many gardeners have forgotten the pleasure of riddling. The riddle – or, to give its more prosaic name, the sieve – is one of the most splendid of horticultural aids. At this time of year it enables the coarse lumps to be removed from seedling compost to produce a medium to encourage more reliable germination. But use it when cleaning and clearing garden beds to collect stones and hard lumps of soil and it offers an archaeological window into your garden in times past. I often turn up old pieces of clay pipe and other domestic impedimenta; and still cherish the day when a Victorian gold sovereign lay shining on the riddle’s wire mesh.

Stefan Buczacki is the author most recently of the fourth edition of “Pests, Diseases and Disorders of Garden Plants” (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Getty
Show Hide image

General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

0800 7318496