Monday, August 31, 2009
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Are English gardeners what they read?
U and Non-U Gardening at the Newsagents
When I first got to London in June, I was crazy to get my hands on any garden magazine possible, just to immerse myself in the pop culture version of the British national pastime. It was hard to find any of them, though I knew the titles I was looking for: "Gardens Monthly," "Garden Answers," "Gardener's World," the cute newspaper-formatted "Garden News," and "Amateur Gardening." I looked in train stations, tube stations, newsagents, garden centers, supermarkets. Believe me, my touring partner was sick and tired of this human garden-magazine search engine by the time our stay was over. I nipped into every and any nook that had even a few racks of periodicals. Very little luck. But I knew to increase my odds I had to look everywhere, all the time. Inner London is not a bastion of major, hands-on gardening, I theorized. I came face to face with more skin mags than I do in New York, but I pushed on with the search. Then out of the blue in a Tesco Express I hit paydirt. Victoria Station was a hotspot, too. Inexplicably, I found the rare "Garden News" in the theater district. I was so delighted when I managed a score that I was too excited even to read them, so I hoarded them in a nice little pile, and went on with my London existence. I brought them home so happily.
Now that I'm back here in the States, I've started to get my weekly copy of "Amateur Gardening" in the mail. In a weak moment at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, I signed up for a year's worth, at an exorbitant price. But since it's soooo down to earth British, I'm not really sorry. Inside the pages are very practical tips on how to do things like lay paving, prick out seedlings, prune fruit trees, roll your turf, or sterilize your greenhouse. It is a very friendly read--one feels as though a nice cup of tea comes along with every issue. I'm glad to get it each week, though I wonder how much of this avuncular advice I could ever really use.
During my search around London, I did see that the one magazine available everywhere, it seemed, was the distinguished English garden magazine we all know, "Gardens Illustrated," which I never bought, because I subscribe to it myself. Full of beautiful photographs, interviews with distinguished garden designers, and reports of vast landscaping projects on the horizon all over the world, this magazine has the opposite feel of "AG." One could imagine it being delivered to Hever Castle or Doddington Hall.
While comparing these two magazines, my chin began to itch. Hmmmmm-- it occurred to me -- is this another microcosm of the [now-disintegrating] class system in Britain? Indulging in the guilty pleasure of tin-ear demographic analysis, I could imagine the dear Little People with their cottage gardens, cannas and grotesque statuary, contrasted with the sedate dignity of their Betters, in hereditary possession of their miles of clipped yew. And here it was, in the magazines in front of me. One magazine--what to do about the hosepipe ban down at the allotment? The other--a biography of a famous plant hunter of the nineteenth century. Having trouble guessing which mag is which?
Ever the American, I feel that a passionate gardener is a passionate gardener, no matter the socio-economic class. Yes, the toffs love their gardens and plants, sure! There are indisputably many, many wonderful upper class gardener/estate owners actively bringing forward the aesthetic and practices of gardening in Britain. But I'm an imp, and I guess that might be why, to my outsider's eyes, it is fun reading in "Gardens Illustrated" about upper class couples struggling to restore and care for heritage gardens that were originally created in an age when estate gardening staffs numbered in the dozens. That the gardens of even very well-known Treasure Houses around Britain now must include 'adventure playgrounds,' so that the upkeep of the place can be paid for. Tee hee? What's wrong with me? I love Chatsworth down to the tingling marrow of my bones, and years ago I remember speeding down to Sissinghurst so I could see it first, before my driving on the left got me into a blazing car crash during my coming garden tour. [The feared crash didn't happen.] And of course I know the advent of any of these amazing places deteriorating into obscurity would be a tremendous loss to history. But still, toffs are toffs, right? If Billy Elliot were a garden buff, that'd be me. So I thought.
So, in sympathy to the other folks obviously more like me, I then pore through the non-U magazines, reading about the retired couples, pensioned out of the Post Office, building and tending their gardens with such pride that one's heart could burst. Page after page of colourful backyard vegetable patches, crazy paving patios, and elaborate water features testify that the beauty of gardening is indeed in the eye of the beholder. These folks raise their own veg! They bring their flowers to the local church flower fete! They borrow tools from their neighbors! And they have Garden Open days, just like the big shots do. These Are My Gardening People. Right?
Oh-oh. What tune am I hearing inside my brain? Tattooed in there from decades ago, the thin notes of the theme of the Thames-TV mini-series "Brideshead Revisited" begin to play. The imposing pile of Castle Howard, visually impersonating Evelyn Waugh's evocation of aristo life between the wars, appears through the mist. Now, absolutely no gardening scenes appeared in those luscious-looking hours of telly nostalgia, yet, my horticultural mind seems to be drifting over to the U side, as signalled by this mournful tune.
And despite myself, I know why. I love miles of clipped yew. Crazy paving leaves me cold. Sweeps of white in a garden room greatly appeals to me. I'd like to like cannas, but in truth, I hate them--and gladiolas, too. In short, Miss Wilmott's ghost is haunting me, and I see that I don't actually much like the looks of the gardens featured in these magazines.
Busted. Admit it--I have the gardening taste of a flipping Toff bathed in privilege, and a overweening interest in the British Gardening Past. I am ashamed. My urge to identify with the post office retirees and dinner ladies is mere condescension. What a jerk.
But here's something interesting. I see that in my latest copy of "Gardens Illustrated" there's a story on cottage gardening, and how to cultivate one's own version of this venerable British garden tradition. Are the U's and Non-U's coming together in the mags? One can hope. At any rate, it's fun, and guilt-free, to watch from Over Here.
It's August--enjoy the Long Vac. [sorry--could not resist.]