Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Will Self got me thinking, about gardening


I was walking around Kew Gardens this morning, listening as it happens to a band called Psychic Ills. I don't think it was their dreamy rhythms but I started to think about Will Self and garden design.

As far as I know, Will Self has no interest in gardens or gardening. Self is a insightful, amusing and at times infuriating British author who's latest book is called Umbrella. Umbrella as in 'A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella', uttered by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses.

I now have Ulysses and Umbrella on my Kindle. I won't be reading the former - a few years ago I listened to it on my iPod - copied from 22 CDs - each time I kayaked out into Middle Harbour for an hour or so. A fantastic read aurally.

As for Umbrella, I'll read that with my eyes. I know it won't be easy. There are no paragraphs and it's constructed as three stories interwoven, sometimes within the same sentence. In a recent interview with Elizabeth Day (The Observer), Will Self says 'the entire novel is shaped like an umbrella – with curved spokes of narrative radiating outwards form a central scene'.

More importantly to gardens, and my morning walk with the Psychic Ills, Will Self confessed to Elizabeth Day that he had 'no patience with naturalistic fiction, really, I just find it dull'. Elizabeth Day explains that Umbrella 'is predicated on the modernist belief that it is only in the rejection of the conventional linear structure and unity of plot that essential truth will be found'.

Now all this might sound rather pretentious but it struck a chord with me. In terms of reading and music, I like to be challenged, to find something new, and to not necessarily have a straightforward narrative or tune. That said, I don't like my art too difficult (my attention span is not that great) and I'm a sucker for a good repetitive rhythm in music and literature.

As for gardens, I do like a pretty garden. I've certainly been impressed with the naturalistic and more formal gardens in England. A neatly clipped hedge or a riot of colour is always fun. But what Will Self's comments made me think about was adding depth to a garden and creating layers that take some time to discover.

I'm not that interested in gardens that might be described as modern or post-modern - they tend to be angular and full of concrete. I'm more interested in connections that are there to be discovered or (to be a little post-modern) made by the visitor on their second or later visit. They don't have to be too cerebral and may just be a motif that is repeated here and there, or perhaps a plant form that is only evident for part of the year.

In Kew Gardens I started to track the ancient trees, the ones planted for Princess Augusta and then later for William and Joseph Hooker. I could see threads through the garden when I looked at it this way. Kew Gardens is a hard garden 'to get' and we often talk about improving the interpretive signs so that the landscape can be understood.

I'm still happy to do that but maybe we should leave some parts to be discovered alone. We could provide hints and plenty of access to stories about plants, people and plantings, but leave the rest to the visitor. I don't mean make it a cryptic quest. It should more about soaking up some ideas and connections, not piecing together a puzzle. We could then introduce some design features to reinforce the stories embedded in the collection and landscape.

OK, this is now starting to sound a little mystic and conceited. It might amount to nothing but Will Self did get me thinking about garden design this morning. And that's no bad thing.


Images: In a Self-penned piece (also in the Guardian/Observer stable) Will describes a 'midget cactus' which he became convinced (while on drugs) was made of plastic, only to tear it from its pot to discover living 'pathetic' roots. So my image here is a cactus from the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens, called Opuntia quitensis, and yet another excuse to feature more cacti flowers from high summer in London.

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