A Bradford town garden, late 19th century. (Photo: Garden Museum, London)
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Hardy blooms: the British urge to garden, against all odds

Green fingerdom throughout the ages in the face of wars, poverty and social upheaval.

The Gardens of the British Working Class
Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, 413pp, £25

A Green and Pleasant Land: How England's Gardeners Fought the Second World War
Ursula Buchan
Windmill Books, 368pp, £9.99

Many books and articles written to feed the insatiable maw of gardening literature are worth not a single leaf of the rainforest. These two books, however, have something refreshingly new to say. “Refreshing” is perhaps a moot word, as both are essentially about deprivation, and the human compulsion to create gardens – however pitiful, insignificant or bizarre – that blaze defiantly in the face of poverty, war and all the odds. The other common currency is continuity: roses and root vegetables were planted as assiduously five centuries ago as they are today; the medieval “weeder woman” segues into the 1940s Land Girl; Thomas Tusser (1524-80), the author of A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, prefigures the first celebrity gardeners of the 20th century, C H Middleton and Percy Thrower.

Margaret Willes used to be the publisher for the National Trust and, having burrowed into its archives in Cirencester and Swindon, I am tempted to guess that the weight of material contained both there and in its country-house libraries helped equip her to tackle, in The Gardens of the British Working Class, a vast and relatively unexplored subject. She has succeeded in letting the individual voices of the underdogs of the gardening fraternity shout or whisper tellingly through its pages.

She begins by describing the precepts and practices of the 16th to 18th centuries. Although this first quarter of the book is richly packed, the information and quotations here may well be familiar to readers with a taste for garden history, and a case might be made for taking as the starting point instead the birth pangs of the Industrial Revolution, with all the repercussions that rural despoliation and urban overcrowding, vastly increased pollution and a newfangled poverty were to have on working-class life.

In her epilogue, Willes refers to the “consistency of the threads” running through the book. The threads may be consistent but they also occasionally get tangled. Allotments quite rightly feature strongly, but they crop up (pun regrettably intended) in several chapters, which can be confusing. And does the work of gardening professionals – head gardeners, market gardeners and nurserymen – really belong in a book about working-class gardens?

Such carping aside, the material assembled is remarkable in its depth and range, and is packed with economic, social, horticultural and literary insights. (Hands up, whoever knows the difference between burgage plots and guinea gardens.) Above all, the gamut of green spaces – window boxes, rural back and urban front plots, allotments, public parks and model villages – is explored in meticulous detail.

The 19th century, the meat of this book, threw up remarkable differences in gardening fortunes around the country. In 1844 the social historian William Howitt discovered “upwards of 5,000 gardens in Nottingham, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class . . . These lie on various sides of the town, in expanses of many acres in a place . . . In the winter they have rather a desolate aspect, with their naked trees and hedges, and all their little summer-houses exposed, damp-looking and forlorn; but, in spring and summer, they look exceedingly well.”

Contrast this with a childhood memory of gardens near the Regent’s Canal in London:

The back yards were all alike . . . and contained a back-to-back water closet . . . Every year Father planted a few geraniums and blue lobelia plants, but with the soot, lack of sun and cinder ash in the soil they lingered to a premature death . . . If a tuft of grass appeared in the crevices of stone and clinker [Mother] would tend it as if it was a lily . . . It reminded her, she said, “of the country”.

I hadn’t realised that by the 19th century the florist societies – gatherings of horticultural “twitchers” avid to grow the stripiest tulip, the most fragrant hyacinth, the showiest dahlia – were by no means confined to the upper classes. Tradesmen and “mechanics” loved them, too. Willes relates the story of John Hufton, a Derbyshire stocking-maker in the 1850s whose carnations, mulched with decaying leaves and “willowdust”, were famed far and wide. When the time came to show them, he would walk to Nottingham, “carrying a dozen pots in wooden boxes hanging from a yoke, like a milkmaid with her pails”.

The Oxfordshire stonemason Charles Snow springs from the page as the prototype of the hard-grafting working-class gardener of the 1880s:

. . . he would get up at four on a summer morning, work in his garden for an hour, and then set off [to work] . . . Every day he noted the weather, usually followed by short notes, written in pencil, of his gardening activities . . . When in work, almost all his wages were given over to Mrs Snow, and the rest spent on things for the garden and occasionally on beer.

Hyacinths and tulip bulbs mark him out as a florist enthusiast, and he filled his plot with vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, together with a few ducks.

What emerges most strongly is the no-nonsense resilience of the period. One story concerns a lady living near Nottingham who spent much of her time visiting “the poorer classes”. On a visit to one home, she found that the coverlet was missing from the bed.

Her immediate reaction was that it had been pawned, but the wife revealed it had gone to keep the frost out of the greenhouse. “And please ma’am, we don’t want it and we’re quite hot in bed.”

Photographs of prize-winning window boxes and luxuriance coaxed out of compacted urban rubble say it all, the working-class way. The Garden journal (first published in 1871) declared its intention to promote “pure horticulture of the natural, or English, school, free from rigid formalities, meretricious ornaments, gypsum, powdered bricks, cockle-shells and bottle-ends”. Twenty years on, the proud owners of a small London garden are photographed standing beside a rigidly formal wavy flowerbed, fringed by sempervivums that look remarkably like the despised cockleshells.

Gnomes and statues abounded, and as soon as seeds became cheaper and more widely available the gaudiest bedding plants testified to a yearning for colour. This was at a time when the cottage garden, launched when perennials and hardy annuals were the only plants available to working-class gardeners, was making a mannerly and nostalgic comeback higher up the pecking order.

As the story moves on through the First World War to the eve of the Second, Willes begins to overlap with Ursula Buchan. A Green and Pleasant Land, part chronological and part thematic, spans the two decades between the alarms and uncertainties of the phoney war and the dreary deprivations of the postwar period. Equally well-researched, it is a work to be read for pleasure as well as enlightenment – Buchan has 15 books and three literary prizes under her belt, and it shows. This one, now out in paperback, would make a fine offering for anyone who remembers the years of rationing and the at times wanton destruction of gardens and parks in the name of the war effort.

Topics range from the role of the Women’s Institute and research stations, government and media education and morale-boosting (the nanny state in full cry) to prisoners’ gardens, livestock and cooking recipes. How curious to reflect that between September 1940 and April 1945, during which weather forecasts were banned from the airwaves, about 12 million pounds of fruit was being preserved by busy rural women.

Heroes and heroines emerge – Lady Denman of the Women’s Land Army and the WI, Lord Woolton of the ministry of food. Despite the overlap between these books, there are interesting anomalies: Willes doesn’t mention either Denman or Woolton, while Buchan eschews one of Willes’s most arresting wartime photographs, of an Anderson shelter whose roof has been planted with vegetables. It just goes to show what a vast pool there was for the two authors to fish in.

Katherine Lambert is a gardening writer. Her latest book is “Gardens of Cornwall” (Frances Lincoln, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder