If you like to pass an idle half-hour, as I do, reading random entries in Who’s Who, you will be struck by how many distinguished people include gardening among their recreations.
If you like to pass an idle half-hour, as I do, reading random entries in Who’s Who, you will be struck by how many distinguished people include gardening among their recreations. Indeed, it is the second most popular pastime — after golf, bizarrely — in the book. To pick just a few: the Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensberry, Lord Justice Goldring, Susan Hampshire, Mark Damazer, Maeve Binchy, Lord (Chris) Patten and Crispin Blunt MP all own up to spending their spare time gardening.
For busy important people, gardening is the perfect recreation, since it is ultra-respectable, private (unless they choose to open their garden for charity, as Lord Carrington does, for example) and they can entirely please themselves how they do it. They are answerable to no Commons committee, group of shareholders, auditorium of students, court of law or church congregation. The world can go hang, for those precious Sunday hours spent outdoors, before duty takes them inside to read the papers for Monday’s meeting.
These people must have discovered that gardening offers the perfect, and complementary, combination of art and craft, the more satisfactory because it is so multilayered. It would be nice to think that some of these enthusiasts read my monthly columns — although I am, of course, just as delighted if they appeal to readers well known only to their family, friends, colleagues, pets and God.
When I began writing ‘Gardens’ for The Spectator in 1984, my husband strongly discouraged me from ever writing about writing for The Spectator, in case the readers thought that I had run out of ideas. I took this excellent advice seriously and so only in this, my last column, am I writing about writing it. (Sorry, Charlie.) As it happens, I haven’t remotely run out of ideas, but I have decided that the time has come to give up the hurly-burly of journalism and settle for the deep, deep peace of writing books.
The association with The Spectator over the past 26 years has been a happy one. I have been enormously fortunate in my editors and arts editors, who have allowed me my head, trusted my experience and sense, and always kept in the jokes. They have never so much as raised an eyebrow when I wrote about the wicket at Trent Bridge, the pitch at Franklin’s Gardens, the links at Hunstanton or in any other way rather loosely interpreted what ‘Gardens’ meant. I am proud to have been the first regular writer on gardens and gardening for The Spectator, and, I can’t deny it, to be part of a family tradition of contributors who include my grandfather, father, two brothers and son.
Along the way, I have hung a few framed certificates in the downstairs loo, so I must have been putting the ball in the right areas. And, while on the subject of cricket metaphors, I still laugh about the letter I received some years ago from a Spaniard, who said that he read The Spectator partly to improve his English but that my expression ‘to drop a dead bat’ had him stumped. (Oops, there’s another one.)
My tenure of this column has coincided with a fascinating period in our nation’s gardening life. In 1984, gardeners who considered themselves sophisticated were still in the grip of unachievably perfectionist Jekyll-influenced gardening; they were too often also fettered by good taste. Since then, spurred on by apparent climate change, we have become more adventurous in our choice of plants and materials, and the ways we deploy them.
Far more garden owners think about how to use the spaces in their garden most successfully. And, although the bien-pensants won’t thank me for saying so, we have all been the beneficiaries of the vision of two Conservative prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher for slashing higher tax rates, and John Major for introducing the National Lottery. Large gardens, public and private, historic and contemporary, have been given a tremendous boost as a result. A pleasing percentage of bankers’ bonuses goes in employing imaginative designers to create new gardens. The improvement of large gardens has caused standards to rise all round, thanks to the flourishing of high-quality illustrated books and magazines. What a time it’s been.
Now that I am finally moving along, I want to thank all those Spectator readers who have troubled to get in touch, remotely by letter and email or personally in the street, after church, at dinner or when I have given talks to clubs and societies. Thank you for suggesting ideas that I might like to pursue (after you have asked me what Taki is really like). Thank you for flattering me by inquiring how I can possibly think up ideas for articles all the time, as if that were a really difficult thing for someone who spends as much time in the garden as I do. Heavens, even more than cricket, there is so much to say about gardens and gardening that no lifetime is long enough in which to say it all.
The whole business may be slow, frustrating, expensive and not even always fashionable but I know, and I hope that you know — whether you have the opportunity to own up to it in Who’s Who or not — that making a garden is the purest of human pleasures.