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 Your entry is frozen at the moment of death, which makes this one of the most riveting of historical reference books.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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

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