Magazine article The Spectator

Memoir Appeal

Magazine article The Spectator

Memoir Appeal

Article excerpt

Writing a book about your garden, how you made it and how you look after it, seems a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon pastime. The list of authors who have done so this century includes Gertrude Jekyll, E.A. Bowles, A.T. Johnson, Reginald Farrer, E.B. Anderson, Margery Fish, Beverley Nicholls, Vita Sackville-West, Christopher Lloyd, Beth Chatto, Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse. Even if geographically constrained, however, garden 'memoirs' have universal appeal, for all the usual preoccupations of humanity save one money, class, creativity, life, death, showing off, making jokes - are to be found in them.

These books have changed little in essentials over the last 100 years. True, the photographs these days are always generous and in colour, rather than sparse and in grainy monochrome and, in the age of infallible computer printing, there are now typographical errors. Nevertheless, I am sure that the ghost of Gertrude Jekyll, once she had got over these surprises, would feel quite at home reading Rosemary Verey or Penny Hobhouse.

There are many common features. Garden memoirs are very revealing (not always intentionally) of the authors' circumstances and personalities: the writers are always educated, sensitive to beauty yet practically minded, botanically versed, forthright and usually a bit dotty. They are inclined to treat the impostors, Triumph and Disaster, with the same wry insouciance. In their world, not everything grows, or succeeds, but hard work and hard-won knowledge usually manage to overpower a variety of appalling adversaries in the end - weeds, slugs, neighbours, planners, botanists, climate and cats being the most common of these.

Cautionary tales or uplifting experiences are offered, often with due humility, for readers to follow if they will. Despite favourable material circumstances, these writers are rarely unbearably snobbish or Olympian, even if some of them have walked with kings (or, in the case of Rosemary Verey, walked with a future king). As the century has worn on, the gardens described have shrunk, but not nearly as much as they have for the population at large. The real change is that contemporary garden writers do much more of the hard work themselves.

The latest in the genre to be published is by Mary Keen, whom readers will know as The Spectator's reviewer of garden books. But she is as much a professional garden designer as a writer, having, for example, laid out the gardens round the new Opera House at Glyndebourne. …

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