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.

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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