Alan Titchmarsh says that ‘Gardening is more important than politics. It has a consistent point of view. And that is: that a piece of ground should be cherished.’ He is right, but he may not be fully aware that, in speaking as he does, he is expressing a political opinion. He is saying something conservative. One of the clever tricks that conservatism plays is to help people feel that things which, in reality, change often, are immemorial. Sure enough, Mr Titchmarsh goes on to say, ‘If you live in the countryside and look out of the window, you will see there is no ostensible difference between this year and 200 years ago.’ This is almost always untrue. Even if you leave aside blatantly visible technological developments such as pylons and wind turbines, the view from the rural window has been altered by the effects of barbed wire and tractors and nitrogen-based fertilisers and better drainage. Crops like rape or maize were unknown here 200 years ago. The landscape today lacks crucial elements of the past such as elms, and has been added to by garden escapees, including Himalayan balsam, Spanish bluebells, giant hogweed, and, particularly in the West, rhododendrons. As for gardens, they all relate to taste, and taste relates to politics. Virtually any garden planted or altered in the past two centuries reflects, whether unconsciously or not, Britain’s imperial history. We didn’t just have ‘dominion over palm and pine’ — we brought a great many palms and pines home. Yes, a piece of ground is cherished, but in different ways at different times. And this can happen only if people get the politics right so that the country is not swept by war, revolution and poverty. One must cherish good politics so that Mr Titchmarsh, and millions of others, can cherish their gardens.
Reporting the killings in a house in Peterlee, the Times says that the gunman (who also shot himself) liked ‘hunting’. There is now radical confusion about this word, due to the adoption of the American usage by which ‘hunting’ means shooting. I suspect that millions of people think that the hunting ban somehow applies to the possession of guns and are therefore surprised and displeased whenever it turns out that anyone still has a gun in private ownership. They must think it an equal scandal that people are still free to possess other things, such as cars, whisky, and mains electricity, which kill far more people every year than do guns.
If the above, or any other item, is even less lucid than usual, it is because I went hunting (on a horse, without a gun, and, as the saying is, ‘within the law’) on Monday. At some point, as we galloped along the edge of a field, I found myself, in my mind, down a sort of treacle well where I was conducting a friendly, dreamlike conversation with the field master. After a bit, I emerged. I found I was sitting on my horse, in a different field, with people standing round me looking concerned. Apparently my horse had stepped in a rabbit hole, throwing me forward. I turned a somersault, hit the ground and lay still for a minute or so. Then I remounted, but talked what was, I am told, nonsense. A kind person hacked back with me to the box and then drove me home, telling me to go to casualty, but on no account to mention that I had been hunting, since nurses can be nasty about it. At the hospital, a nurse saw me quickly, did a couple of tests, and pronounced me all right. I was then told to wait for a doctor. After three hours, one appeared and, without any further inspection or inquiry, told me that the brain was an important part of the body, and that I could go. I had never been concussed before and, although I felt a little wobbly afterwards, I enjoyed its narcotic effect at the time. I hope death feels like that.
By degrees, rather than any sudden change, Radio 3 is becoming stupid. It is a sign of cultural defeat when you have to keep on assuring your audience that what they are listening to is wonderful. The music is constantly praised for making you feel ‘stunned’, ‘blown away’ etc. We were told that, on Boxing Day, we should ‘relax with a turkey sandwich’ in order to listen to something or other. There is a long programme each morning, tautologically named ‘Essential Classics’, where this approach prevails and presenters make a funny sort of noise when they speak which is supposed to indicate they are smiling. Emails are read out from listeners who also claim to have been ‘blown away’ (not, unfortunately, far enough away) by a piece they want played. To me, a musical ignoramus, the pleasure of listening to Radio 3 is related to the idea that you might learn something. The programme ‘Building a Library’ on Saturday mornings is a revelation because it instructs one in differences which, unaided, I should never have noticed. Music is degraded when the audience is treated like people getting on to aeroplanes. It is a thing in itself, not mere therapy for people who would otherwise suffer from boredom or fear.
There is no subject more tedious, on either side of the argument, than the question of women in men’s clubs, so it is a tribute to the unique genius of Patrick Leigh Fermor that he could turn it to account. At his memorial service last month, John Julius Norwich read out this, which Paddy had written in the suggestions book of the Travellers Club: ‘Women, when they venture into men’s clubs, experience a flutter of exciting and illicit intrusion. The epicene, Maidenhead décor of the room which we give them coffee in, therefore, comes as a shock and an anticlimax. What they long for is an atmosphere which is aggressively, almost overpoweringly, masculine: a jungle of leather and brass and sombrely glowing polished wood, duke after duke scowling from their frames, hussars in dolmans sabreing our foes, allegorical statues of Enlightenment trampling Superstition underfoot, capercailzies in glass cases, dusty lions, whole elks, platypuses, wombats and stuffed otters. They ask for steak tartare and we give them an ice-cream sundae.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 7, 2012