Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Come Into the Garden Again



“Cut out all affectations, such as small bridges... human figures, china animals, glass ornaments, model houses, windmills etc.” advised the London Gardens Society of the 1930s.

When bedding plants (huge beds of one colour) slipped from Queen Victoria's house Osborne to public parks, they became “vulgar and garish”, says Alison Light in the London Review of Books reviewing The Gardens of the British Working Class by Margaret Willes. (Now despised, calceolarias, salvias and begonias were originally exotic imports that needed raising in hot houses.) Oyster-shell edging looked right in a Tudor knot garden, but not in a suburb. (Light repeats the canard that working-class people used most of their garden for growing food – not according to Charles Dickens, who described a village of wooden shacks, each with its outside seat in a “bower”. And hang on, what about all those paintings of cottage gardens?)



"Quick-growing cornus provide a dark canopy in high summer – but be sure to avoid the garish pink varieties. I have used pink flowered forms in Japan, where the sugariness sits better with a Hello Kitty sensibility, but I wouldn’t use them here. Stick with the simplicity of cream and you won’t go far wrong.” (Dan Pearson, Observer July 2014)

Wavy fences are suburban (and 30s). Anathema to Upwards are suburban roads lined with pink flowering cherry and yellow forsythia in front gardens. That strip of land is supposed to keep the world at a distance – they don’t like all these Weybridge personalities coming right out to greet them. You are supposed to read a front garden as really being acres of parkland with deer, sheep and 500-year-old oaks, even if it is only a clump of cotoneasters and spotted laurel. Samantha Upward flinches at talk of the Britain in Bloom competition: all hanging baskets of lobelias.

Beautiful modernist houses (like Farnsworth House) are always in woods. No garden, just a clearing or lawns, with trees. It would be a crime to surround one with bedding plants or herbaceous borders. (But where’s the drive? How do you get there? And where do you park?)


You can get an “outdoor bonfire” (like gas logs). You may call it a “fire sculpture”, but who installs one of these? Surely only the Nouveau-Richards. A circular deck surrounded by a Richard Long ripoff (cemented together), and with a dining area in the middle is beyond naff. A “fire pit” is a fire wok, and you can get them in the style of Andy Goldsworthy. But a circular outdoor conversation pit with one of these in the middle would be rather cosy.


Domestic goddess Martha Stewart has a 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York – including horse paddocks, cutting gardens, a clematis pergola and “long allée of boxwood”. Good for her – big bare houses look so stark. The rich are still surrounding their mansions with a few timid plants, a table and chairs set huddled close to the house on a tiny patio, and vast areas of gravel (in front) and grass (at the back). What do they do on the grass – apart from mow it? With all that money, why don’t they turn their grounds into an adventure playground for adults? Or a maze? Or a treasure trail? Or a series of “rooms”? Or a forest?

At the least the houses need a flower bed and a flagged path all round. And a flower bed or small box hedge encircling the lawn. And features in the garden – paths, ponds, sundials, fruit trees, shade. They could spread themselves – build a bigger terrace, call it a parterre, put in some steps, a pergola, a few vines, some trees, fountains, statues… But I suppose proper stately home gardens require a staff of gardeners.

Here’s what they used to look like:

It was a green tunnel through the wood which opened suddenly upon a garden of rampant roses. Behind that, out of ample robes of roses and all kinds of clematis and jasmine, oriel windows gleamed...” (A Clue for Mr Fortune, HC Bailey, 1937)



In Georgette Heyer’s 30s mystery No Wind of Blame, a  a vulgar ex-hotelier is aiming for the country house style, but doesn’t really like the “wild” garden with its rhododendrons and azaleas, but prefers the neat formal garden and “carriage sweep” at the front of the house.

Between King’s Cross and Highbury there are backwaters full of huge Georgian and later houses that must be worth a million or two. The associated gardens all feature laburnums and wistaria.

In large country houses, flowers were grown in hothouses and flowerbeds to decorate the house. The lady of the house, or one of her daughters, arranged them herself – in the flower room, which had a huge sink and a lot of vases. The idea slid down the classes, and Metroland grew roses and put them in rose bowls on occasional tables. Bowls of growing hyacinths were also popular, and hydrangeas in the garden. Metroland devised new types of flower vase: the bud vase for a single rose, little horseshoe-shaped containers in moss-effect pottery for primroses. In the 50s, ladies went in for flower arranging in the Japanese style, learning ikebana from Constance Spry. Stow Crats and Upwards shuddered. And now we’re left with a lot of vases of various periods that mainly hold commercial bouquets we have been given for mother’s day.

The Times (May 16) has a tip for keeping the birds off your grass seed – use bunting.

More here, and links to the rest.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

Gentrification 6

Stoke Newington becomes the Cotswolds

Some time soon, London will be nothing but a playground for the wealthy that doubles up as a tourist attraction. (Bryony Gordon DT Dec 2014)

It was a lot more upmarket than where we lived. (Countdown to Murder)

Is France the new Tonbridge Wells? I now dread readers' letters that end with words like "Aix" or "Rochefort-en-Terre" the most.
(‏@camillalong)

Overheard in Weybridge: “They’re opening a Morrison’s? Not very Weybridge!”

Trapped waiting in a Shoreditch coffee joint. Overheard convs inc mortgage options, 2nd homes in Cotswolds & green juice recipes. (James Wong @Botanygeek)

Would love it if, one day, the mystery house on Escape to the Country was a bedsit above a kebab shop in West Bromwich. (Sathnam Sanghera @Sathnam)

Times writer Robert Crampton used to think he could never own a mobile phone or live in a gated community or use a Filofax or drink imported lager or bottled water because that’s what 80s yuppies did. “What a dick,” he observes of himself. (April Times 2015)

Nothing says "I'm a member of the gentry" like "gentrification is a myth, but besides maybe it is actually good for places." (Chepotle Guevara ‏@AlJavieera)

I was quite as happy in Waddilove Street; but the fact is, a great portion of that venerable old district has passed away, and we are being absorbed into the splendid new white-stuccoed Doric-porticoed genteel Pocklington quarter.
(The Christmas Books of Mr. M.A. Titmarsh, William Makepeace Thackeray)

There's always some naive artist saying 'We just wanted a warehouse to take over – I'm shocked, shocked to see gentrification going on here!' (‏@davidjmadden)


Yes, yes, I’m sorry for young people trying to rent or get on the property ladder. When we were young our salaries were tiny. It was very hard for a single young woman to get a mortgage. You had to save with a building society, in the hope that it would give you a mortgage when you found a tiny flat in an “unfashionable” area. (“Fashionable” areas are where richer people live.) There was no spare cash for renovations. There were no credit cards in them days. If you wanted to rent a flat, you had to hand over “key money” of about £500. This was illegal, but a fact of life. And people were quite shocked at different genders sharing a flat or house. Even if you shared with one or two other girls, this was seen as something you did for a few years before getting married, not as a lifestyle choice. And most flats above shops were empty and decaying, for some legal reason. It made streets look tatty and depressing.

Back then, some middle class people worked the system so that they had a cheap flat in central London – housing association, co-op, top floor of some rich person’s house, pretended they lived in Westminster and bought a flat off Shirley Porter. It meant they had more spare cash than the rest of us and could afford a low-paid but high-status job or occupation – usually something impressively creative that we all wanted to do. Sometimes they had quietly married somebody with private means.

And now I hear middle-class young people are being forced to live in tiny bedsits to save on rent! Just like the 50s! (See Cooking in a Bedsitter, The L-Shaped Room.)

The chatterati are wringing their hands and moaning that London will become a bland theme park for the rich, and all the shops will sell nothing but overpriced chandeliers – ignoring the vast swathes of London where poor people will presumably go on living, as long as nobody kicks them off their estate so that they can sell it to developers or private investors. (By “London” I think they mean “central London” – or even “West London”.)


GENTRIFICATIONGentrification no longer means a few hippies, writers and artists moving into a run-down area; it no longer means hipster cafés; it no longer means nice-middle class families buying up Victorian houses that are cheaper than the Crouch End equivalent – it now means destroying beautiful old buildings, building soulless investment flats and waiting for the money to roll in.

Gentrification proceeds like an amoeba – the first pseudopods are hippy cafes which are almost working class. Cheap and inclusive, with batty décor. They are soon followed by upmarket coffee shops. The hippies move further out. It all happens so fast now! But perhaps when you’re 60 everything seems to happen fast. Perhaps that’s why people talk about “the hectic pace of modern life” – they mean it changes much faster than it used to. When we were children nothing changed much! At least that’s how it seems to us.


Hippy café in Dalston Waste


We used to talk about areas “coming up”. Areas can also go down. I wish they would. Middle class people used to move into an area that was said to be “coming up” and hang on for years among the pound shops and wind-blown litter while nothing happened and none of their friends came to join them. In Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, one of the newsmen has moved into a South London suburb, and is always rather desperately trying to get others to move there, as he and his wife are lonely. Another character owns a large Victorian house but spends her time improving it with tacky “modern” features made out of MDF and hardboard – such as a cocktail bar in the lounge.

Apparently incomers can always point out the building that used to be a crack house. (I can – at the top of Sandringham Road, Dalston. Now spruced up, with a French church and a net-curtain shop as neighbours.)


Former crack house


Landlords put rents up so that only the affluent young can afford the area. The poor move out. Ordinary shops become middle class cafes. Is the exterior of your local pub now painted with blackboard paint – and “chalk” menus promising locally sourced grub? It’s happening in Finsbury Park.

Many more people go to uni now, and then they all come to London to become artists and actors and writers and work in the media (or get arts-related jobs). What did they do in the olden days? Many stayed in the provinces and became bank clerks. They joined a manufacturing firm and rose through the ranks. But banks have fewer branches and fewer clerks. The manufacturers have closed down. The warehouses are now studios. But we can’t all be artists – is this sustainable? Like the hippies who sold sandwiches from vans at festivals, the other route is to run a café with a difference. There’s a pub in Islington called The Library, and a café in Hackney called The Advisory. In Balls Pond Road: Salvation through Noodles, Subtitles, Artichoke.




Hipster style is the same old Ye Olde Tea Shoppe artsy craftsy William Morris (but without the medieval look). Nostalgia for the old ways of carving teaspoons, writing with a fountain pen, commuting by bicycle, growing a beard, wearing the costume of a Victorian builder. Meanwhile we run our lives with sophisticated technology, and all around us lovely bits of old London are being razed in favour of glass towers out of Metropolis and dull imitations of Georgian townhouses. Perhaps the hipsters will protest, if they’ve got a moment. Can’t wait for the first hipster to commute to work on horseback.

"It can feel strange to be surrounded by the same person wherever you turn," said a Hackney resident about the hipster incomers. The hipsters held a street party and only invited their friends, no local people. The same woman commented: “If another culture did that they’d be accused of not integrating.”


The broadsheets talk as if Stoke Newington has been gentrified – done and dusted. They never mention the people living on the many council estates; or the Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Chinese and Vietnamese communities who have lived here for decades and still do. Gentrification happens around these people.

We thought Stokey would always be the home of dissenters – travellers who went to Nepal and brought back silver jewellery and handwoven textiles, which they sold at the Stokey Festival. We used to shut the street and sell our wares (or sing) on the pavement and listen to salsa bands. We thought it would be like that for ever and ever. We never thought Stokey would become Islington. And then Fulham. And then the Cotswolds. But why wouldn’t it?  The rot set in when the street was no longer closed, and the festival became an ordinary rock gig in the park (and we sang in a tent), and then fizzled. Now there’s a music festival centred on the churches, with string quartets and lute recitals. I never go, my heart is broken.

More here, and links to the rest.