Horticulture, fully dressed. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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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 Your entry is frozen at the moment of death, which makes this one of the most riveting of historical reference books.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?

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war