Ursula Buchan

Genteel ghetto

Genteel ghetto

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From time to time, people to whom I am introduced mishear and mistake me for a Guardian journalist. I can’t always quite be bothered to put them right. I am not ashamed of being a gardening writer — far from it — but my profession has, in recent years, become something of a genteel ghetto. There are a number of clever, talented, cultured garden writers at work, but they have a struggle to be taken seriously by the wider world. This is thanks mainly to a narrow concentration by television producers on practicalities and personalities, but is reinforced by book publishers’ obsession with photographic images. As a result, most people now think we are all Charlie Dimmocks, minus the top hamper.

This disadvantage is peculiar to our own day, however, as the exhibition The Writer in the Garden, at the British Library, shows. The curators have used books, manuscripts, illustrations and sound recordings, mainly from the Library’s vast collection, to underscore what an important connection there has always been between writers and gardens. In different ways in different centuries, writers of every kind have described both real and fictional gardens in such a way as to express notions about all the really big issues: religion, love, sex, death, friendship, politics, philosophy, status and class, even war. And writers as various as Marvell and Pope, Keats and Rosenberg have found consolation in gardens. John Evelyn wrote that the garden was ‘The place of all terrestrial enjoyments the most resembling Heaven and the best representation of lost felicity’. We think of Evelyn these days principally as a diarist, but he was famous in his time as an innovative writer on forestry and gardening, and was f