George Brown. Credit: Getty
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Stefan Buczacki’s Diary: Remembering George Brown and the real problem with Countryfile

They threw away the mould when they made Labour’s former Foreign Secretary George Brown.

I recently came across a faded natural history book in my library with a publication date of 1908. Beneath his name on the title page, the author had indicated his qualifications: MA (Oxon), FLS, Member of the National Trust. Ah, those were the days, when National Trust membership equated to an Oxford degree and fellowship of the Linnean Society. Now, five million folk share the privilege and there is no argument that if we did not have a National Trust to care for so much of our historic heritage, we would have to invent one.

But why does the National Trust of today often feel the need to treat me like a viewer of Blue Peter, its properties masquerading as theme parks with volunteers dressed in faux costumes and talking in strange contrived accents? Far too often the trust confuses education with entertainment; and I do not think its purpose is to entertain.

Stop labelling me

Above all the other irritations that are probably unavoidable with an organisation that has now become so big and bureaucratic, why has it felt necessary for the trust to join the toe-curling vogue for anthropomorphism? Several of the properties I visit regularly have little notices on the antique chairs – “Please do not sit on me; I am very old”. It is like waiting at a bus stop only for the next one along to have its indicator board reading: “Sorry, I am not in service” (I have even seen: “Sorry, I am taking a holiday”). Come on National Trust, you are better than a bus company, so do treat us like adults. 

The MP who called me brother

It is said rather frequently that modern politics is bereft of characters. A few members do their best to be distinctive; and Dennis Skinner, thank goodness, is always with us. However, I was fortunate in growing up represented by someone who was unarguably a character. Like Dennis, he was a Derbyshire MP, although one now largely forgotten and from a bit further south in a constituency that in my day was called Belper but today, awful to relate, is largely subsumed into an invention known as Amber Valley (who dreams up these names?).

Yes, they threw away the mould when they made George Brown. I met him several times, attended some of his constituency meetings and recall particularly my birthday in 1964, the day he was appointed first secretary of state by Harold Wilson. To his credit, he kept to a long-standing engagement to address our school sixth form society. I can even remember the question I asked him: what did he think of the use of the referendum in politics? As I am an only child, his response was the first time any one had ever called me brother, but he was non-committal: “Not sure,” he said. “Never have been.”

Lord with a difference

Brown was always called George Brown and stayed so when he was elevated to the peerage, as Lord George-Brown. I am told that before the title could be agreed by the College of Heralds, an existing Lord Brown had to undertake not to call any of his children George; but that may be apocryphal. Two years later, Brown became foreign secretary, an event it was said proved the British still had a sense of humour. Obviously that sort of appointment couldn’t happen today.

Ninety pence a stick

During my years with Gardeners’ Question Time, we made many strange ports of call but this week I am reminded especially of our visit to a gardening club that had just re-formed after being rent asunder several years earlier by a dispute that revealed English village life at its most Miss Marple.

The society had fallen out with itself in a truly big way over being unable to agree if rhubarb was a fruit or a vegetable. I am reminded of this by two things: first that the rhubarb in my kitchen garden is now producing splendid tender sticks under its forcing pot and a rhubarb crumble beckons, but also because I am completely baffled by how expensive the stuff is to buy considering how easy it is to grow. Tesco.com was recently offering three sticks for £2.75, that’s more than 90p a stick.

Perhaps we should blame Geoffrey Boycott (“My gran could have hit that with a stick of rhubarb”) but take my advice and if you have a spare corner of the kitchen garden, buy a crown of the variety Timperley Early, mulch it with plenty of well-rotted organic matter and it will reward you forever. An elegant terracotta forcing pot over the top (ideally Victorian if you can find and afford one) will give you a crop up to a month early too. Oh yes, the answer to the question: it is botanically a vegetable but treated like a fruit in the kitchen. Which obviously did not help the gardening club one little bit.

Pointless greetings

I have a problem with Countryfile on BBC One on Sunday evenings. I know I am far from alone in that but for once my criticism is not the usual one the programme faces: that it depicts a one-sided, sanitised view of the countryside and farming for folk who seldom get any nearer to it than their armchairs; I have a farmer friend who bristles even at the mention of its name.

No, it is not that; rather it is the ridiculous and unnecessary habit of the presenters meeting their guests in the middle of nowhere and shaking hands with them. Does anyone really believe these two people have never met? Surely viewers have enough intelligence to realise this will be the second or third or tenth take – depending on the experience of the director and presenter and their ability to put the guests at their ease.

This obsession with hand-shaking permeates almost every factual and lifestyle programme. I can only assume it is standard fare on directors’ training courses but frankly it just looks stupid; and is as irritating as the participants in makeover programmes of gardens, houses and so on being told they have to toast each other – “Cheers!” – in sparkling wine when the job is done. 

“Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards” is published by Unicorn Publishing

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.