Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Of Rhubarb and Roses – a very late review

Of Rhubarb and Roses’ – The Telegraph Book of the Garden

Portraying a history of garden fashions through the years, edited by Tim Richardson.

This book came out an absolute age ago now, and I can only apologise for the delay in this review, but perhaps I’ll start a second rush at the bookstalls…

I was going to describe this book as a social history, but then checked myself – this is the Telegraph, after all. The working class get an occasional mention, such as when one old gent was acquitted of bodily harm after a shooting at an allotment. No, if you want to get an idea of what the working classes gardens were/are like, I suggest you read ‘The gardens of the British Working Class’ by Margaret Willes.

No, the Telegraph gardening column is frequently not for those without half an acre or more. Even the first article suggests that a first time buyer will have a garden large enough to accommodate beds for flowers and veg, room for a greenhouse, as well as a reasonable-sized lawn. Our first house did have a garden, within which you could, just about, swing a cat but only a reasonably tolerant one who didn’t mind a few blows around the head as he got struck by the fence panels on each gyration. I was particularly amused by Bunny Guinness’ 2002 article on accommodating children in a garden. I consider that we’re lucky enough to have room for a small willow wigwam as a den. Bunny suggests a range of activities and areas to keep children amused – a 14’ sunken trampoline, paddling ponds (plural, note), and a woodland play area which includes zip wires and hammocks. Oh, and two brief sentences about smaller gardens.

The topic of orchards comes around regularly – long time columnist Fred Whitsey returns repeatedly to the orchard he’s planning in his mind. In 1973, he was talking about medlars, quinces and mulberries. Mark Diacono brings up mulberries again, in 2011. Nothing new under the sun… Joy Larkom introduces us to oriental vegetables and cut-and-come-again salad in 1988, for this to be repeated ad nauseum by others. A lot of the articles on gardening are the standard stuff – there’s only so many ways to talk about pruning, digging and so on.

The range of writers over the years is a delight. Denis Wood and Fred Whitsey lasted quite some time. The earliest contribution included in the compilation appears to be from HH Thomas in 1938, talking about window-boxes – I love the reference to Funkias  - the former (and much more fun) name of Hostas. An article by Bill Deedes reminded me that he had been a politician, and taught me that he was quite handy with a scythe. Many writers have their own theme running through each contribution included in the book – Noel Kingsbury and the development of the new perennial movement, Dan Pearson and native planting, and Roy Strong and his habit of mentioning Highgrove and Prince Charles.  Actually, that is a bit harsh – to my surprise, he only mentions them once, and I really enjoyed his article on embroidery and its relationship to parterres and knot gardens. The obligatory Christopher Lloyd appears only once, I believe. It was interesting to read in one of Kingsbury’s articles that Germany is busy making new public parks that are maintained by the local council. We, on the other hand, close parks, cut down on maintenance and expect volunteers to do the jobs of the experienced park gardeners. What does Roy Lancaster think of that, I wonder? We don’t know, but we are told about his beginnings in an article by Fionnuala McHugh in 1991.

Women writers gradually encroached into the male-dominated environment. Vita Sackville-West made early appearances in the 1960s, and Constance Spry (florist) in 1954. More recently, women contributors have flourished, with regulars such as Sarah Raven (talking about cutting flowers – who’d have thought? And her with a seed shop…), and Beth Chatto, who discusses the importance of getting the plants right for the place. Germaine Greer’s writing was a delight, including her contemplation on snails. The Letters section included a series of correspondence to the RHS in 1967, after a comment by Lord Aberconwy (at the time president of the RHS) about the lack of women on the RHS council being “this little storm in ladies’ teacups”. The first woman was elected to the council in 1968 – Frances Perry.

As well as lords, there is the odd smattering of Dukes particularly in relation to grape exhibiting. In 1993 and again in 2010, articles report on the rivalry between the Dukes of Devonshire and Marlborough and their Muscat grapes. With a good 10 months hard work described by Sarah Raven to get grapes worthy of exhibiting, it’s rather disappointing that the dukes get all the accolades at the shows, and not their hard-working and skilled gardeners. It’s nice to see that the untitled Ms Walshaw beat the dukes on occasion.

Some of the most interesting articles to me are those either interviewing or giving a history of gardeners and designers. Elspeth Thompson writes of  an interview with Rosemary Verey in 1995. Verey describes herself  as a talented amateur. A talented amateur with sufficient money and impeccable connections, it has to be said – the second mention of Prince Charles in the book. I enjoyed Verey imagining she had a “small” garden. Her small garden would still be big enough to have parterres, as well as a separate vegetable plot. Talking of impeccable connections,   the obituary of Peter Coats, “social bachelor”, was a delight- educated at Eton, weekending with aristocracy, and a prolific name-dropper. Possibly my favourite article in the book was Maureen Cleave’s 1994 interview with Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. I’d heard of Jellicoe, vaguely, and it was fascinating to read of his work as a landscape architect. Here was a man who outlived his 50 year plans that he had worked out for the sites he had designed. I was also delighted to discover that the original guerrilla gardener, Ellen Willmott, was also a shoplifter (allegedly) saved from prosecution by the intervention of the Queen.

Of course, there are articles on gardening and on plants, but many of these don’t stay in the mind so clearly – the cyclical nature of gardening means that we’ve probably read similar before. Growing asparagus pops up almost as frequently as the spears themselves do. Composting is a perennial favourite topic. Perhaps predictably, the use of chemical control of pests and diseases gradually ebbs as the years pass. The popularity of specific plants waxes and wanes. The rise of the new perennial movement is charted. And the bad-tempered gardener, Anne Wareham, carves a niche for herself as a sort of ‘anti-gardener’. I’d imagine that some of her articles make some Telegraph readers get cheerily grumpy about her views. Finally, Arabella Sock may be pleased and amused to hear that Brian Harvey had an article published, on meeting the needs of cats in the garden. Sadly, not *that* Brian Harvey, as the article was published in 1976, probably before the young man had been born, never mind run over his own head with his car or been mooted as the next presenter of Gardeners’ World.

This book was a delight to read, despite some authors occasionally causing my teeth to clench with their assumptions on the reader’s garden size and disposable income. Still, this is the Telegraph. Perhaps it’s a consequence of having a toddler, but the short articles made the book an easy and enjoyable read, and some of the nuggets within have made me want to seek out more. What more could you ask for from an anthology?

Note: I was kindly given this book to review by the publisher. This has not affected my views, which are entirely my own.


Arabella Sock said...

Ha ha! After all these years Brian Harvey presenting Gardeners' World still makes me laugh. a lot!

HappyMouffetard said...

Good old Brian. He's still young - there's time yet...