Saturday, June 18, 2016

Of Bourdieu and begonias

Monty Don, the nation’s gardener, has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about begonias. A rather longstanding (article from 2000, and there are others since then) and particularly buzzy bee at that. Reading the article from 2000, he’s not keen on houseplants, either.

I was going to let it go. Each to their own, etc. We all have likes and dislikes. Obviously, what I like is right, and what you like is wrong, but I will allow you to grow it in your own garden. However, when ‘the nation’s gardener’ (how Monty might be viewed, having the ear of the national press and a weekly BBC2 gardening show) sweepingly dismisses not just one genus (for there are lots of types of begonias) but also a way of gardening (tender bedding – how ‘common’), then I think it begs a little closer examination.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but when the article from 2000 contains the following quote, I feel we are starting to touch on my discomfort with Monty’s views:
“The honest truth is that I think if I really had no garden - no possibility of an
allotment, no little yard, however dingy - I would forgo house plants and buy
cut flowers daily. When we lived in London, I would often go and cut a bunch of
flowers from the garden to take as a present when going to friends for dinner. “

So there we have it. If Monty could imagine living in a squalid hole with no outside space, no rolling acres of pleached hedges and box and views to the countryside, no wildflower garden with writer’s shed, no glasshouses, he would buy flowers on a daily basis. That’s great. He would be lucky that he can do that. Perhaps, however, some of those people who do live in houses or flats with or without a dingy little yard cannot afford a couple of pounds a day, or even a month, on fresh flowers (and we can be pretty sure that Monty wouldn’t be buying a couple-of-quid bunch of daffs from the local supermarket).

Perhaps, just perhaps, a few quid spent on begonia tubers,  and a six-pack of trailing lobelia, and you have a summer of bright, vibrant colour. Goodness, sometimes you can even coordinate the colours of these flowers, as heaven forfend that we have a bit of colour clash. I mustn’t be too harsh on Monty, as one reason he scorns the tender bedding is that it is often sold too soon and can end up curling up its toes if planted out too early. But his attack on such bedding is more than that, and perhaps I’m over-analysing this, but to me it relates to class and taste.


I’ve been reading quite a lot about Pierre Bourdieu recently. Primarily because I’m writing an 8000 word essay on how his concepts relate to student choice in higher education. How does this link to begonias? Well, Bourdieu explored a lot about class, and ‘reproduction in society’ – how it is that those with power and influence maintain that power and influence, and those without stay without (with a few minor exceptions). One area he explored, particularly in his book Distinction, is taste and culture. What is good taste, how society view taste, how the concept of ‘good taste’ is maintained (forgive me if this is a bit of a rubbish explanation – I’m still grappling with his theories).

What Bourdieu suggested is that taste is ingrained within our social place in society. We have class-based predispositions to taste, based on what we absorbed through our upbringing and social setting. I was brought up in an initially working-class environment. My household, my friends’ households, didn’t grow up listening to classical music, going to plays, visiting museums. Whilst I don’t know much of Montague Don’s background, it would appear that he had a different, established middle class, upbringing from me, attending various private schools and Cambridge University. He had different experiences of taste within his upbringing. According to Bourdieu, in this established middle-class upbringing, he will have developed greater cultural capital.

Capital forms the foundation of social life, according to Bourdieu. There are several types of capital - the one most easy for us to understand is perhaps economic capital – those with more economic capital are those with more money. Cultural capital is composed of the symbolic elements that one acquires as part of a particular class – the mannerisms, skills, behaviours and, importantly here, tastes that a particular class shares. Those with greater cultural capital can buy something like this because it is kitsch and makes us laugh knowingly and ironically (always with that understanding that someone inferior actually likes that stuff – the humour is there because we see ourselves as superior to the person who buys it without irony). Someone with a bit less cultural capital would scorn it as hideous. But to someone with even less cultural capital, it is a pretty and useful part of the household decoration, and not a piece of ironic kitsch.

So, begonias. Very much like a frilly toilet roll cover. Bright, flouncy, often in clashing colour schemes. Abhorrent to the good taste of the middle classes. The middle classes who can choose to have bright colours, but instead talk about their deep, rich, jewel-like hues:
"There's a distinct trend toward rich, strong jewel colours," reports Monty Don.
"It's a gesture against all that pastel good taste," says Monty Don. "The cottage-garden
style has gone as far as it can and disappeared up its own backside."

Ahh, the pastel good taste of the cottage garden of the 1990s has been replaced in the middle-class hierarchy of cultural capital by jewel-like colours. Not garish. No, instead rich, sumptuous colours.
This begonia looks pretty rich, jewel-like and sumptuous to me. But it’s frilly. It’s a tender annual. The working class buy them to plonk in the ground:


No expert knowledge needed for these. No understanding of garden design or complex horticultural growing conditions. Anyone can grow them – even those people (the working class) with no taste, no back yard (however dingy), just a pretty basket possibly shaped like a puppy (bought non-ironically). How common.

If not begonias, it would be some other form of plant or gardening practice. Take pelargoniums. I’m not saying Monty doesn’t adore the zonal pelargonium bedding display. But many, perhaps middle class, keen gardeners would not give them the time of day, and instead would rave about the beauty of Pelargonium ardens – to many non-horticulturalists a rather sparsely flowering and nondescript plant. But, if you have a bit of cultural capital, you can expound on the simplicity of the flowers, the richness of the colour, the ‘natural beauty’ of it, compared the cheap, common, blousy bedding pelargonium.


So, let’s not be snobby about plants. Let’s not be snobby about people who grow plants, even if they buy them ready-formed and bung them in a bog (and we’re not talking the sort of bog Rodgersias thrive in). You might abhor the meerkat, but some adore it.

Celebrate everyone’s taste, and make a little room in your life for begonias. Or maybe I've just read a little bit too much into this... what do you think?

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Wave to Sir Dave

I was never going to Clean for the Queen. However, 2016 is the year that someone far more important and influential to my life turns 90. Sir David Attenborough. So, let's not Clean for the Queen; let's wave to Sir Dave.

When, in 2012, Sir David felt that he hadn't influenced people to take up science, my husband wrote a blog post as part of the huge upswell to assure Sir David that he most certainly had influenced people. I didn't write a post then, so I'm making up for it now. Sir David, you haven't just influenced me to take up science; the influence you have had reaches far into my life. I was nine when Life on Earth first aired in 1979. It absolutely blew my mind. My parents had brought me and my brother up to wonder at the natural world around us, so I loved nature. What I didn't know was the extent of nature. I watched enthralled each week, coming in from playing out in time to catch the start - no video recorders or I-player in those days. I rushed back from the school play one week, still in my make-up from the play, to make sure we didn't miss the start. That music still gives me such a thrill when I hear it.

Whilst I know that, for many, the highlight of the series was probably Sir David's encounter with the gorillas, what stays most clearly with me and influenced me so overwhelmingly were the early episodes. I'd never heard of Volvox, or stromatolites, or crinoids. And as for the marine flat worms moving through the water in their Sunday finery - I don't like to use the word stunning lightly, but in this case, I was stunned by their beauty.

Our family watched all the David Attenborough series. I loved them all, but especially those areas where the nature was new and different. Lions in the African savannahs are all fine and dandy but you can't beat velvet worms squirting sticky goo to catch prey or fungal growth from the Private Life of Plants.

I had no plans to go to university. None of my family had gone to university and no-one I knew had gone to university. However, I signed up to a sixth form trip to Bristol University, based on it being a day out of school. When I walked into the biology department, it was like being immersed in a David Attenborough programme. Corridors lined with wood and glass cabinets, filled with jars of pickled specimens - plants, fungi, invertebrates. It was heaven. I decided right then and there that I was going to university and I was going to Bristol. I did. The new-fangled technology of video was used in some lecture and practical sessions. And the video resources used? Life on Earth - watching Volvox on the screen and then looking at them down the microscope. Heaven. There was even a lecturer whose specialism was marine flatworms, the flamenco dancers of the sea.

I wanted to graduate from university and be the next David Attenborough. That didn't work out, and I can live with that. I met my husband at Bristol. My current life is pretty much due to the influence of David Attenborough at an early stage. A few weeks ago, I was talking to a biology student where I work. I asked her what she wanted to do when she graduated. She told me she wanted to be the next David Attenborough.

Twenty-five years after I graduated, Sir David is still influencing people to become the next David Attenborough. I told her what I have been telling myself for 25 years. We don't need the next David Attenborough just yet - the current one is still doing it astoundingly well.

Thank you, Sir David, thank you.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The monotony of the medium-distance runner

Have I mentioned that I'm running a half marathon in May? No? Well, maybe a few times on Twitter and Facebook. Sorry.

One of the inevitable features of this is that I spend a good hour or two on a Sunday morning running. Not an elegant sight - to be honest, using the word 'running' is rather a generous description of my activity. What's this got to do with gardening? I hear you cry (or rather, I hear the rattle of tumbleweed rolling by a rarely updated blog). Well, you see, running is rather boring. Running for nearly two hours is particularly boring, especially when most of the final thirty minutes is spent thinking "If I can just make it to the next lamppost, then it's not long to that 30mph sign...". However, running is starting to get a little more interesting.

After a winter of brown leaves underfoot, brown mud, brown streams coursing over the pavement, and a plethora of brown and well-disguised dog turds (do the dog-owners in Chester never pick the stuff up?), there are the green shoots of spring.


As I run, I've now started to notice the shoots of plants beginning to scramble through hedges and come up through pavement cracks. Cleavers may not be welcome in the garden (though goodness knows there's enough of it in ours) but it's cheering to see it starting to climb through the hawthorn hedges as I struggle past. It seems to have more energy than me. Peoples' front gardens are bursting with new life; there is a particularly splendid Magnolia stellata well worth running past at this time of year, as well as some older gardens with mature larger magnolias.

And when the distance starts to get a bit too much, I resort to taking my mind off my energy-depleted legs, trying to remember the Latin names of plants I run past - a fence covered with Hedera helix, what's the species name of that Viburnum flowering here? Ahh, good old Crataegus monogyna is starting to leaf up now...

Well, it keeps me on the streets, staggering along.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wordless Wednesday - Oi!


Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Wordless Wednesday - Epimedium


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Whether the weather...

Winter has been late and light this year. December and January were so mild that daffodils started flowering then. But with a cold March, they’re flowering still. Buds on trees are now desperate to push through, the pressure building up. All they need is a day of warm sunshine and the country will suddenly be green, flushed with new growth.

I can’t help but feel a little sad, though. There are many reasons to be thankful for a mild and event-free winter. Less strain on the NHS, ease of commuting, and avoiding the endless TV and radio news when travel chaos hits London. But I’m of an age when I can remember the relatively regular excitement of fat flakes of snow spiralling down, not just for a few minutes, but enough so that we could excitedly shout ‘It’s sticking, it’s sticking!’ and wake the next day to an entirely new landscape. Yes, I know: rose tinted glasses with lenses blurred by the Vaseline of nostalgia. I didn’t have to get to work then, or worry about shopping, heating bills or having to stay off work because the nursery or school was shut.

But snow angels, snowmen, sliding on compacted snow were all regular occurrences. At junior school, the exciting moment when, on a snowy day, the headmaster would emerge, dustbin lid in hand. Not because of concern over litter, or due to some weird form of corporal punishment but because, on a snowy day, he let himself be fair game. He would run, with lid wielded as a shield, around the playing field whilst we tried our hardest to pelt him with snowballs. Climate change is much more serious than missing out on the chance of getting your own back on your headmaster, but it makes me just a little sad that this regular occurrence seems to be disappearing. Our little boy has barely seen snow; just a few flakes, a sprinkling. Frantic scraping of a dusting led to a snowman a few inches high last year. This year – nothing.
Instead, a late spring will bring fat flakes of green as a storm of leaves appear on branches over the next few days. But you can’t make a snowman out of that.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Purple


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book review: The gardens of the British working class

Another book review for the blog, and another book that I started ages ago and have only just finished. It's funny, now I'm having to read more for my EdD, my appetite for reading other material has increased, perhaps as an antidote to having to read about epistemology and hermeneutics.

Anyway, enough of that - on to the interesting stuff. I bought this book about 18 months ago, with my own fair money.

Margaret Willes is the author of The Gardens of the British Working Class, and she has previously worked as a publisher at the National Trust. She has had several garden-related books published, and I have another of hers on my pile.

This book is an attempt to fill the gap that so often arises when one looks back at any era of history - the story of the working class. The voice of the poor is difficult to find, but the author investigates the role of the garden or working class people from the 1500s onwards. She even manages to find evidence of a few of those most excluded from history - women. The book charts the move from rural setting, through industrialisation to suburbia, all the while discussing the importance of the garden, allotment or even window boxes. Throughout much of this time, a well-stocked garden was all that stood between many of the working class and starvation. It's only relatively recently that gardening for the pleasure of flowers has come to the fore, although Margaret does find evidence of flowers being cultivated whenever possible.

One good example of the desire to grow flowers was the rise of the 'florists' and their societies from the 1600s onwards. Here, middle class and working men (they all appear to have been men) competed for glory and prizes in the cultivation of flowers such as carnations, auriculas and tulips. Some bright perfection in what was often a hard life.

Some of the history of urban parks is also of great interest, with philanthropists providing land in places such as the East end of London to be developed as parks. Well, in part philanthropy but also to reduce the risk of rabbles and revolutions.

The book also discusses the rise of allotments and their political past (to be truthful, they still are...), Dig for Victory and the development of radio and TV gardening celebrities.

I could go on, but I'll never start the next book. I found this a fascinating read and am enthralled by the amount of research which must have gone into it. I can't wait to read the next book in the pile by Margaret Willes. However, first I'm reading SPQR by Mary Beard, so I may be gone some time.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Garden Anthology - a book review

The Garden Anthology - edited by Ursula Buchan (Frances Lincoln, Ltd., 2014).



I am an RHS member, and receive on a monthly basis their magazine - The Garden. This is generally an interesting read. Whilst I do get occasionally fed up of yet an other gushing review of a huge private garden, there are also articles on smaller gardens and, increasingly, social/gardening movements. This year, Tim Richardson wrote a great article on  the High Line in New York. Whilst I'm never likely to visit it, Tim's coverage of social and political factors lying behind the garden made for a more interesting read than the normal "Look at the lovely herbaceous perennials" discussion of it.

Tim Richardson is one of the authors chosen to feature in this book, a collection of articles from over 100 years of The Garden magazine. His short article discusses the landscaping at Ground Zero. Other authors include plant hunter George Forrest, garden designers Geoffrey Jellicoe and Gertrude Jekyll, and cook Nigel Slater. I was going to write 'a real mix', but perhaps very much indicating the typical readership. Middle class (and higher - Viscountess Byng of Vimy?), almost exclusively white, although men and women are both well represented. I suppose a pretty accurate reflection of the readership.

The articles themselves cover a range of topics - seasons, the kitchen garden, plants and people. The more fascinating chapters for me were those which showed a wider variety between the years. For this reason, I particularly enjoyed the pests and diseases and science and innovation sections. Here, dates of articles ranged most widely, from 1900 to 2013. It was fascinating to read a review of the horticultural value of Mendel's experiments in genetics, and to see how the use of chemicals has changed over time. I was glad to see that the author of a section on popular weedkillers acknowledged that arsenic might constitute a health hazard for the user. Chlorates, on the other hand, were fine.

As I mentioned above, it was the older articles (a smattering of early 1900s through to 1954) that were so interesting, shedding a light on past thoughts and gardening practicalities. Some things change, others not so much. Which leads me on to the one thing I found disappointing about the book. With the weight of history of The Garden magazine, it was a shame that the editor concentrated on very recent articles. I became a little obsessed by this, I admit. It turns out that 30% of the articles chosen for this anthology came from the single year 2010, with 73% of them being from 2009 - 2014 Whilst I was working this out, I also noticed the editor's name cropping up quite a lot in articles, and discovered that 9 (or 7%) of the articles she chose were written by her. The only other writer with anywhere near the same number of articles chosen was Hugh Johnson, mostly writing as Tradescant, who wrote for The Garden from 1975 to 2006. He contributed 6 articles (4.6%). I can only conclude that The Garden had a golden year in 2010, for so many articles to be chosen. Thinking back, I can't imagine that 2010 was so outstanding. Perhaps that was when a modern system of online indexing made article choice easier...

I must make mention of the beautiful illustrations by Jenny Bowers that are scattered throughout the book - they're a joy.

In summary - an interesting read, easy to dip into, but I can't help wishing for a few more historical articles.


Note: I was sent this book to review. I do so belatedly (it was published in late 2014). All views are my own, etc.

Wordless Wednesday - Arachnophilia