A note about manure
Sir: I am afraid Matt Ridley shows a lack of understanding about agriculture in general and organic production in particular in his argument against organic food (‘Dishing the dirt’, 24 July). Livestock production has involved the use of animal faeces — or farmyard manure as it is called when mixed with straw — ever since livestock was first housed in the 1800s. Bacterial infections are due to poor hygiene in the slaughter and processing chain, not how animals are fed, grass is produced, or the use of manure, which is an important by-product. Bean sprouts being infected with E.coli is probably down to poor hygiene of personnel, not organic vs non-organic systems.
Yes, organic food is more expensive. The issue here is that this country has followed a cheap food policy since the last war. People will happily pay for rubbish food which is full of additives, yet complain about the price of staples that are not full of chemicals. Being educated about why an organic chicken is better for you and about the welfare of the animal you are going to eat, compared with a cheap mass-produced animal, is at the heart of the issue. There is also a middle road between the mass-produced, intensively grown food beloved of our supermarkets and organic food.
I would love to invite Matt to Devon to visit a commercial organic dairy farm owned by a chum (and fellow Spectator reader) who produces top-quality foods.
Christopher D. Forrest
Sir: I’m sure I am not the only reader to spot a correlation between the articles of Matt Ridley on the case against organic food, and Sam Leith on human laziness (24 July). I have been involved in the farm machinery business for more than 50 years and have customers on both sides of the organic divide — so I would like to think I can see both sides of the story. To be a successful organic farmer is very difficult and requires a great deal of planning and effort. But conventional farming, on its much greater scale, also carries with it huge stress in poor weather and fluctuating world prices. My view is that those people who promote organic produce are most likely the ones who will bother to buy on a more local scale and who actually cook their own food. Perhaps those who promote the Jeff Bezos style of purchasing should stick with the chlorinated chicken.
Little Cheverell, Wiltshire
Obsessed with freedom
Sir: The Spectator these days seems obsessed with the idea of freedom (‘On the cards’, 24 July). I’m 85 years old and keep racking my brains for memories of such a state. Sadly, if it ever did exist, it seems to have passed me by. The restrictions imposed on me at boarding school and in the Royal Navy don’t appear to have made me particularly unhappy. Neither did the blackout and rationing. Maybe most of my generation aren’t bothered by lockdowns, special passes, or whatever minor frustrations we have to put up with. Has life ever been really different?
Sir: The editorial ‘On the cards’ (24 July) states that ‘No British government has ever tried to force vaccinations on the population’. Might I point out the Vaccination Act of 1853? By its provisions, every child had to be vaccinated against smallpox within three months of birth. Failure to do so rendered the parents liable to a penalty of up to £1. This was followed up with a sequence of further Acts modifying its provisions. The right to conscientious objection was eventually introduced in 1898, whereby some parents could avoid the penalty.
Isis = the fascists
Sir: In his review of ‘Secrets of an Isis smartphone’ (Arts, 17 July) James Walton repeats an idea I’ve heard before: that British volunteers who went out to fight for Isis are the modern-day equivalents of the International Brigades who fought Franco’s fascists in the 1930s. But surely those volunteers are more like the few Brits who fought for Franco? The modern-day International Brigade volunteers must be those who fought against Isis, such as Mercer Gifford. They are the equivalents of the brave men and women who, like Orwell, fought fascist ideology nearly a century ago
The right order
Sir: I agree with Charlie Newington-Bridges’s praise of Jeremy Clarke’s column (Letters, 24 July) but I disagree with the idea of reading it first. Why peak too early? If you read in the correct order, you reach Jeremy’s page with a heightened sense of anticipation and enjoy it all the more.
Sir: I have another use for ‘ping’ (Mind your language, 17 July). In some parts of Wales, a microwave oven is sometimes referred to as a ‘popty ping’ — popty being one of the Welsh words for oven, and ping for the sound you hear when it has finished. It rolls off the tongue somewhat easier than the official Welsh name of ‘ffwrn microdon’ doesn’t it?
Peter W. Morris
Ynysybwl, Mid Glamorgan
Sir: I am researching a memoir of my mother, Pamela Berry (Hartwell), 1914-1982, and would be most grateful to hear from any Spectator readers who have in their possession letters from her which they would be prepared to share with me. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sir: I enjoyed James Bartholomew’s article ‘Losing the plot’ (24 July) and I am pleased that he has sounded a warning note, for something so precious to our national life as the garden must never be taken for granted. But his conclusion that ‘gardening is dead’ is arguing too much from the locally particular to the general, and is mercifully premature. Kensington is altogether another part of the woods from unfashionable east Northamptonshire, where plastic grass is as rare as a rose in January. As for British chrysanthemum nurseries, the major reason for their decline is that chrysanthemums are thoroughly out of fashion — at present. Dahlia nurseries are a different matter.
With regard to his theory that it is women’s jobs that prevent them from giving the time to the ‘gentle pleasures’ of gardening, I find it remarkable and admirable how working women carve out time to tend their gardens, some even managing to open them once or twice a year for charity. Of course, there are contemporary barriers to adventurous gardening, most particularly the availability of distractions like holidays and second homes, the building of most new houses on very small plots, and the lack of status and money in professional gardening (despite the complexities and intellectual challenges of the job). But the urge to make a garden is a very strong and enduring one, and has lately been promoted by the succession of lockdowns. Nil desperandum.
They mow and they grow
Sir: Plastic and paving may be replacing plant-based gardening in some small city gardens, where busy families are desperate for easily maintained living space in the open air, but it is probably done mostly by people who would never have seriously gardened anyway; the London housing boom shows people longing for gardens. James Bartholomew is quite wrong to say that the making of great gardens is in decline because middle-class women are too busy working; they may perhaps pave the Kensington garden, but they still mow and grow in the country. The designers of great gardens, by contrast, have always been or become professionals, whatever their sex, and I see the best fully employed making exactly the kinds of large, plant-rich and surprisingly traditional gardens which Mr Bartholomew says are in decline.
Forest Coalpit, Abergavenny
Sir: Those who favour outside rooms furnished by exterior designers are missing the pleasure gained from growing plants from seeds and cuttings and the sentimental attachment to mature plants sourced from family and friends. In my case these include a yew hedge, a 30ft bay tree, an amelanchier and numerous shrubs and perennials, mostly propagated by my mother many years ago.
Boomtime in gardening
Sir: All the evidence is that gardening is booming: according to the Horticultural Trades Association, three million people took up gardening during lockdown, half of them under 45. Far from carpeting the land with fake grass, today’s gardeners are more aware than ever of the need to use nectar-rich plants, and almost every seed company has a range of pollinator-friendly plants. And unlike the Victorians, we’re not pouring poisons on to everything to keep insects at bay. British gardeners continue to be hugely influential. Garden designers like Tom Stuart-Smith, Jo Thompson, Nigel Dunnett, Sarah Price and Andy Sturgeon are making wonderful gardens both here and abroad and are worthy successors to Gertrude Jekyll and Lawrence Johnston. And you only have to look at the thousands of superb private gardens that open for charity under the National Gardens Scheme to see that gardening is still an essential part of British life.
Constance Craig Smith
A rural passion
Sir: I can assure James Bartholomew that 60 miles south of London, gardening is the passion of many rural residents — on a quiet evening, you can almost hear the sound of weeding and pruning on the air.
Noel St John White
Brightling, East Sussex
Sir: James Bartholomew is misinformed on numerous counts. Drawing on unsourced statistics from between 15 and 23 years ago to make the case for the loss of London’s private gardens, and suggesting that it ‘seems likely those trends have continued’, is lame in the extreme. Just how he established that in the 1970s there used to be 120 chrysanthemum growers and that by 2010 (11 years ago!) there were just three demands some evidence. I can find none. The 2020 RHS Plant Finder lists more than 600 varieties of chrysanthemum on offer in the UK from more than 30 nurseries. The past ten years has not seen a tenfold increase in growers of chrysanthemums.
We might forgive his preposterous aside that ‘real gardens’ tend to be cared for by ‘ageing widows’, but to suggest that there is a decline in British gardening and it is ‘largely because women nowadays have different kind of lives’ should have been enough to consign this nonsense to the bin.
Member of the Professional Garden Photographers Association and Garden Media Guild, Monmouthshire
Nearer God’s heart
Sir: It is simply not true that gardening is now confined to ageing widows. Living, breathing things — plants, birds and animals — mean more to us in this age of plastic sterility than ever before. ‘You are nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on Earth.’ An old cliché, but how true.
Hawes, Upper Wensleydale