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 Your entry is frozen at the moment of death, which makes this one of the most riveting of historical reference books.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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.