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 Your entry is frozen at the moment of death, which makes this one of the most riveting of historical reference books.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?

Niina Tamura
Show Hide image

“Anyone can do it, I promise you!”: meet the BBC’s astronaut-ballerina

Why science needs to be more open to women, minorities - and ballet.

Whether dancing on stage with the English National Ballet or conducting an experiment for her PhD in quantum physics, 29 year-old Merritt Moore often appears a model of composure. But in last Sunday's opening episode of BBC2's Astronauts: do you have what it takes? we got to see what happens when high-achievers like Merritt hit breaking point.

Merritt is one of 12 candidates attempting to win the approval of Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station. Along with her fellow competitors, who include mountaineers and fighter pilots, the dancer has had to face a series of gruelling tasks designed to measure her potential to operate well in space; from flying a helicopter, to performing a blood test on her own arm.

Many of these tasks left Merritt far outside her comfort zone. “I’ve only failed my driving test three times and crashed every car I’ve gotten into - but I think helicopters are different?!” she joked nervously before setting off to perform her first-ever helicopter-hover. Yet after a shaky start, her tenacious personality seemed to pull her through. “I’m good at being incredibly persistent and I don’t give up,” she told the space psychologist when asked to name her strengths.

Merritt also believes it is persistence (and hours of practice) that have allowed her to excel in two disciplines which are typically seen as requiring opposite traits: ballet and science. While studying for her PhD at Oxford, she has continued to perform as a professional dancer around the world. It's a stunning feat by any measure, and when I talk to her on the phone this weekend I ask whether it’s only possible because she’s some kind of genius? “No!” she exclaims, with a winning mix of genuine shock and self-deprecation. “I’m as far from a genius or a natural dancer as you can get - everyday I just feel like flailing mess! My thought process is that if I can do it anyone can do it, I promise you!”

But there is one thing that Merritt thinks might be holding back others from pursuing a mixed career like hers – and that’s the way the scientific world is run.

“They kind of self-select themselves,” she says of many science-professionals she’s met. "You get some people who are not incredibly understanding of those who perhaps approach [physics] in a different way, or who need a different type of schedule," she says. "They look down on people who are different from themselves, which is really difficult; I think that’s why women have difficulties, and I think that's why minorities have difficulties."

A report from the Royal Society on Diversity in Science would appear to support Merritt’s conclusions. It showed that women are significantly underrepresented in senior scientific roles, and that black and minority ethnic graduates are less likely to go on to work in science than their white peers.

So how can these trends be reversed? For Merritt the answer lies as much in schools as it does with targeted scholarships and support groups. Science education needs to be re-branded, she says, so that thinking creatively is actively encouraged from a young age; “It makes no sense to divide it up and say everyone either has an analytic mind or a creative mind." Simply leaning a set of very technical facts from a textbook drives her “bonkers” - but “when there’s passion behind something then anything is possible.”

If she could one thing about physics education, Merritt says she would switch things up so that the “exciting bits” get taught first - such as the latest thoughts on quantum computing or DNA repair. Then if students do choose to continue, they’ll know why they need to study the boring, rigorous parts too. “You’re like right, I need to learn about a harmonic oscillator because that’s how I’m going to understand this quantum computer.”

More cross-fertilisation between science and arts could also help the ballet world, she believes. “I can visualise my centre of mass, how gravity is working on different parts of my body, and how the torque effects my turns – and I think that’s a massive help,” Merritt says of her dancing.

But that’s far from all. When performing she often finds herself thinking about the more bizarre and “mind boggling” sides to physics: “Why is there all this dark matter in the Universe? What is that?! - when that’s going on in my mind, my legs become free because it means I’m not thinking about whether I look bad, or if something is right or not. I’m just inspired - and I want my dancing to be inspiring rather than self-critical all the time.”

Focusing on actions rather than self-image was definitely something Merritt's parents encouraged from a young age. Her dad’s work as an entertainment lawyer in LA meant he was particularly alert to the stereotypes that were being laid on young girls. And, as a result, Merritt and her sister grew up without TV or fashion magazines. Her dad was even initially worried about the mirrors in ballet classrooms

But self-criticism is also very hard to avoid when your antics are being broadcast to the nation on Sunday night TV.

“When you see yourself on screen you just feel incredibly vulnerable,” she says, “they are getting the raw emotions of how you’re reacting to stuff that you’ve never done before in your life!”. What Merritt’s episode one journey showed however, is that knowing yourself makes it easier to bouceback from nerves and self-doubt. And that perhaps more of us should be encouraged to believe that you don't have to choose between the stars on stage or the ones in space. 

The next episode of BBC2's Astronauts: have you got what it takes? will air on Sunday 27th August at 9pm.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.