Tag Archives: unsung national treasure

Unsung National Treasures – 4 – The National Plant Collections

FlowerThe National Plant Collections are what they say on the tin, collections established “to conserve, document, promote and make available Britain and Ireland’s rich biodiversity of garden plants”.   “Why bother?” you ask.  Well plants can disappear surprisingly quickly because gardeners, like the rest of us, follow the whims of fashion.  The range and variety of plants available to the casual gardener has been drastically reduced by the supermarkets and DIY stores, even though they have made their limited stock so widely accessible, because they have destroyed our independent nurseries as much as they have destroyed our independent grocers.  It’s not just historical plants: who’d have thought that a plant that was widely popular only 40 years ago could have disappeared?  However “the shasta daisy ‘Fiona Coghill’ was thought to be lost from cultivation. The Collection Holder, Lady Hagart-Alexander … discovered that Reg Maxwell … still held a plant. He had received it from Philip Woods, who was in charge of propagating ‘Fiona Coghill’ when it was first marketed in 1968. … the plant you can buy today is exactly the same as the popular plant in the late 1960s.”

This is not a matter of vague good intentions and a romantically English blend of aristos and plantsmen.  It is about botany, as much as it’s about anything and each National Collection is “as complete a representation of a genus or section of a genus as possible” and the National Collection Holders undertake to “document, develop and preserve a comprehensive collection of one group of plants in trust for the future”.

So where do you go to see them, these catalogued collections of plants? These are the gardening equivalent of the British National Library or the cellars of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and you’d think that the National Plant Collections would be held at Kew or Wisley, but in fact they are held on allotments and back gardens, in large estates and municipal parks.  Almost half the collections are in private ownership, and others are held by councils, commercial growers and universities.  I don’t know about you, but I find the robust practicality of accepting the help offered by dedicated individuals over creating something flashy and unsuportable from scratch to be surprisingly  moving. It is confirmation that all you need to do to make a difference in this world is roll up your sleeves, pull on your wellies, and – well – make a difference.  This is what gardening geeks do for fun: think of it as our national gardening wiki.

If you fancy taking it on, then there is still much to be done, and the The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens publishes a list of missing genera.  Be warned, though, that holding a National Plant Collection is no sinecure, and Collection Holders have to document their plants and work with others to ensure that their collection can withstand whatever disasters might occur: “Oak trees need space and it may not be practical to hold a full back up collection, however, Lathyrus spend the winter as seed in the fridge. Collection Holders must propagate their plants so that if an oak tree is hit by lightning, or the fridge fails, the plants are not lost from the collection (and possibly horticulture) forever.”

The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens is a surprisingly new organisation, being founded as a registered charity in 1978 as an independent offspring of the Royal Horticultural Society.  This contrasts with the many batty British conservation and social campaign groups which were founded between the two world wars or during the outburst of change at the end of the 19th century.  This blend of amateurs and professionals combining their expertise into a national force to be reckoned with is, however, quietly and quintessentially English.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the allotments and cold-frames, the gardens and parks, the aristocrats and nurserymen, the plastic labels and extensive database that form the National Plant Collections.

Unsung National Treasures – 3 – Pantomime

The Russians have ballet, the Italians have opera, the French have impressionist art. The British national art form though is not high culture, in fact it’s not considered to be any kind of culture. It’s so much part of the background at this time of year that its true status in British life is invisible. You see, the British national art form is Pantomime.

Most people who aren’t actually British have no idea what Pantomime is. A few non-Brits who have over-wintered in the UK may have been taken to a pantomime by unusually malicious British friends but by and large pantomime is a peculiarly private national vice. And I do mean “peculiarly”.

First of all – what pantomime is not: It’s not venetian. It isn’t mime. It isn’t dance.

And now what it is: it’s silly, it’s funny, it’s vulgar, crude and innocent. It’s childish and seasonal. It’s frequently a young Britlet’s first and maybe only introduction to theatre. Most interestingly of all, it’s a loose collection of rituals and conventions wrapped up in any one of a dozen or so traditional plots. And that’s really the point of going to a pantomime – waiting for and enjoying the wierdness as it comes out and beats you over the head with the subtlety of a string of sausages.

The principal boy in the pantomime might be a prince or a pauper, Charming, Aladdin, Jack; it varies from pantomime to pantomime and almost doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters about the principle boy is that she should have shapely thighs. The principal boy, you see, should be played by a girl.

Principal Boy

This delightful piece of cross-dressing is counterbalanced by the Dame, usually a maternal figure, usually on the side of good guys, always presented as a grotesque and always played as camp as Christmas by a middle aged man.

Pantomime Dame

The actual heroine, Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, is sweetly played by a fully dressed woman, and she really is rather dull, bless her. She’s often by a soap star who has seen better days; there’s an odd cachet to playing panto these days, but it is one which no-one bothers even trying to explain when looking for work abroad.

Some pantomimes have demon kings and others have fairy godmothers and most have a comic sidekick or two. I hesitate to say “straight man” in this context, however anything less homoerotic than a pantomime is hard to imagine.

Pantomimes are full of slapstick and prattfalls, full of clowns clowning around, full of awful puns, appalling jokes and ludicrous double- and single-entendres.


The dramatic tension in a pantomime doesn’t come from plot or characterisation, it comes from where and how the ritualised elements will be incorporated. There should be a horse played by two actors in a single costume; camels are permissible in Aladdin, Sinbad or Ali Baba, but they aren’t really hardcore because if you are playing the back hump of the camel you can just about stand up straight. You see, that’s the whole point of the pantomime horse: one bloke you can’t see has his head up the bum of another bloke you can’t see, and I still say it’s not homoerotic. Though I admit you’d be deeply worried by pantomime if you were an anthropologist from Mars.

Someone will hold a ritualised argument with the audience – oh yes they will – oh no they won’t – oh yes they will, and at some point two actors will rotate on stage in such a way that one of them cannot see the other – despite loud shouts of “He’s beHIND you” from every audience member under the age of seven. Anyone under four foot tall in the first ten rows of the stalls will be brought up on stage to help sing a song the words of which will are painted on a bed-sheet and winched down from the flies. Sweets will be thrown at the audience.

Pantomimes are gloriously surreal, like Music Hall on acid. What I find fascinating though is that nationally we have no idea what we have here. We don’t take pantomime to the world as our national art form even though that is precisely what it is, with the Carry On films, I’m sorry I haven’t a Clue and McGill‘s seaside postcards expressing the same innocent filth in other media. We are almost unaware of just how peculiar and wonderful pantomime actually is. Panto is brilliant, wierd, idiosyncratic, silly, ritualised, great fun and uniquely British.

Ladies and gentlemen, as my panto-season gift to you, I offer you the unsung national treasure which no-one wants to publicise abroad.

Oh no they don’t.

Thank goodness.

Unsung National Treasures – 2 – HRH the Princess Royal

HRH the Princess Royal

Mrs Timothy Laurence is the Queen’s second child and only daughter. The equine features of HRH the Princess Royal stand out cruelly in a family which produced people as attractive as Princess Margaret and Prince William.

She has never courted the media. Whatever pain she felt because of her first husband’s infidelity, she kept to herself. In the 1970s she famously told a bunch of photographers to “naff off”, though in retrospect it seems much more likely that the word she used began with an f rather than ending with two of them.

The Princess Royal is the only member of the Royal Family in recent times to have achieved national standing for reasons other than her birth. In 1971 she one the individual European Three Day Event, and in 1976 she represented Britain in the Three Day Event at the Montreal Olympics.

You have the feeling that she leads exactly the life she would have led if she had not been royal. She lives on a working farm, admittedly one with a large house and good views. She does practical things for practical charities. She is simply at one end of a scale which has along it all the countless women who deliver meals on wheels, rattle tins for the Red Cross and staff the WRVS shops in hospitals.

Her visits to third world countries are unphotogenic and unphotographed. This quiet pragmatism makes her seem ruthlessly unsentimental:

“The very idea that all children want to be cuddled by a complete stranger I find utterly amazing”.

She does have a point. She may not respond physically or with gushing emotion, but she is fully engaged intellectually with the charities she supports. She has been President of Save the Children since 1970, and Mike Aaronson the charity’s Director General describes her contribution like this:

“In her readiness to think laterally and to question conventional wisdom – often through vigorous debate – she has always displayed great courage and intellectual integrity.”

Integrity is a good word to describe the Princess Royal. She is the most egalitarian of the Royals. Her husbands and children have not been granted titles. Her children are 10th and 11th in succession to the throne; they are Mr Peter Phillips and Miss Zara Phillips, and their commoners’ names stand out sharply among those of their cousins who are princes and princesses.

She is modest, but she is also frequently the most hard-working of the Royals. League tables are suprisingly hard to find, but the 2001 table of royal engagements published in the Guardian shows her public engagements outstripping those of Prince Charles 5 to 4, and those of her mother by almost 5 to 3.

The Princess Royal has passed on on this hard-working and practical modesty to her children. Zara is pretty and blonde but she also wins European Three Day Eventing Championships. Peter works for the Royal Bank of Scotland managing their relationship with the Williams Formula One team. The Princess Royal herself was ridiculed for saying that if she had not been a royal she would have liked to have been an HGV driver, but in fact she has an HGV licence and uses it to drive horse-boxes around the country.

Perhaps the story which sums the Princess Royal up the best is the one that Jackie Stewart used to tell about meeting her at one of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year functions in the early 1970s when he was winning Formula One races and she was winning Three Day Events. He was expecting a la-di-da aristo who’d had everything given her on a plate. Then he shook her hand. It was the hand of someone used to manual work.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the one royal who’d survive a revolution, the one who would have preferred to be a commoner, the hard-working one: I give you HRH the Princess Royal.

Unsung National Treasures – 1 – Radio 3

BBC Radio 3 Radio 3 is known as the BBC’s classical music station, but that description sells it short. It provides just over 2 million people with all sorts of minority programming: in fact I am not listening to the Theban Plays of Sophocles right now because I cannot listen to one set of words and type another.

Who else would broadcast Lifehouse, an obscure play (or is it an opera, ach, Pete Townsend calls it a ‘project’) which combines music by The Who with cyber-fiction and spiritual commentary?

What other station would wake you up with music by Mozart written for and played on the glass harmonica, which is an astonishing instrument apparently invented by Benjamin Franklin.

What other broadcaster would broadcast the complete works of J S Bach over a ten day period, as Radio 3 did last Advent?

Classic FM’s presenters drop their voice by a third or so and talllk realllly smoo-oo-thly. They tell you to relllaxssss with Classssic eFFFFF eMMMM, and intersperse their cheap seductions with advertisements for chocolate and weekends in York or Bath. The presenters on Radio 3 tell you what the music is, who is playing it, and maybe provide you with a fact or a point of interpretation to help you understand what you are listening to.

Radio 3 is unafraid of its own intelligence. If you want arrogance and exclusivity go to Radio 1. If you want radio that is easy on the ear and easy on the brain go to Radio 2. If you want radio that is politically engaged go to Radio 4. If you want the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves go to Classic tweeting FM. If you want radio that considers its subjects for their own sake, engages with them on their own level and as a result is neither repetitive, patronising nor pretentious then go to Radio 3.

It is shocking that the 60th anniversary of the Third Programme went past earlier this year unannounced, unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Ladies and gentlemen, one of Britain’s unsung National Treasures, and thanks to internet technology a wonder of the world, I present to you BBC Radio 3.