PR is as prevalent as peonies, primroses and sweet peas at the Chelsea Flower Show. Haute champagne producers, stealth-wealth banks and even principalities (Monaco – get you, and your rooftop-sized pool) use the show’s best stands as nightly opportunities to woo their guests into a rose-scented malleability, gentle ambassadorship or in some cases raising awareness of ‘issues’ (I’m thinking of you, Green & Blacks). What a superb way to win friends and influence people – and so easy too – just spend around £200k and notice how quickly your social stock rises.
But this experience of the show is very far from the day trippers’ reality where the tremendous swell and heave of vintage M&S swathed middle-class middle -England attacks the stands in a very un-British ‘elbows out and no apologies given’ kind of way. It’s all very Martin Parr at the Grand National…. and generally demonstrates that no amount of unisex Panama hats can take the edge off the fact that the British en masse don’t really do tasteful or elegant…and are very vocal when they think something is rubbish. This was nicely demonstrated by the many candid comments I overheard about the toe-curlingly awful British Heart Foundation garden.
I have to agree with one lady who I heard commenting to her mother “why not hit us over the head and take money from our pockets, it would be simpler and kinder than inflicting THAT garden on us”.
The general mood and tone was akin to the Christmastime party scenes at Bridget Jones’ parents’ home i.e. it embodied the British persona writ large in all its glorious eccentricity – which brings me neatly onto who accompanied me on this foray into British traditions.
I was being feted by no other than the Cary Grant of northern architecture and design, Alan J Smith, who grew up in a Durham mining community but who has gone on to become an indisputable social A Lister as well as one of the UK’s best architects www.redboxdesign.com / http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_J_Smith_OBE,_DL. He regaled me with tales of the previous evening’s starlit dinner at which he’d hosted a table chock full of luminaries of British sport and which subsequently turned into a late, late, late, late night of the best possible sort.
This storytelling seemed to me to represent the essence of the show and a very British trait: namely, showing off whilst being extremely self deprecating, talking about fancy stuff in a casual low-key ‘I come from a Durham mining village’ kind of way and so I am immune to glamour and not that impressed by it. Another way of seeing it is as ‘feet firmly on the top rung of the social ladder but with enough grace to leave the bottom rung available for you to get a toe on’…it’s a very British characteristic and intensely particular to us northerners. But it appeared that the best gardeners at the show were also like this…they know everything there is to know and are also happy for you to know a bit too, though you’ll never ever know as much as them and that’s the way they like it.
But Alan’s very real charm, intelligence and knowledge marks him out as a ‘leading man’ and polymath – in other words the type of man who is rarer than a Nightingale in Berkeley Square but who could tell you who wrote the song, some interesting facts about Nightingales and also have the best tablebooked at The Square.
An old hand at the show (Alan won a silver medal last year for his garden for Gateshead Council at his first attempt; but he’s not happy with silver, no not at all…gold next time) and with him acting as a guide the show took on a different dimension – the structure, materials, the interplay of light and shade and the overall composition of each of the major stands became the focal point rather than the flowers and foliage. The effect of this was like visiting Paris with a native – all the things you thought were going to be shown and impressed by were dismissed in the wave of a hand, but what was revealed was far more interesting, smaller in detail but bigger on impact.
And this is where the circle was squared. Although the flower show on one level is just a massive money making illusion that bears little resemblance to the type of gardening that most of us might know or understand – when you get beyond the paparazzi-popping corporate schmoozing and into the Grand Pavilion it’s actually jam-packed with quiet specialists manning their stands year after year, and who know everything and anything about their particular flower species that even the keenest gardener is ever likely to want to know.
They love their plants, they adore their work, they believe in the tiny details and nuances that transform their ‘gardening’ into an art form. They do it because they live and breathe plants and flowers and enjoy the most sensual of relationships with them. It’s easy to be blinded to this authentic connoisseurship because the glare of money of the main exhibition boulevard can dazzle and distract.
And this is what I choose to take home from Chelsea: not the Cameron Mackintosh West End musical version of it, but the quiet thoughtfulness of the true plant and flower specialists to whom this show is not really about being showy at all it’s about sharing the obsessive love of the true gardener’s heart.
I think that Alan, my tour guide for the day, known for his garrulousness was revealed to be amongst friends with these growers – another, quieter side, of his character was pleasingly revealed as he talked lovingly and knowledgeably about the work of various specialist producers, the different characteristics of the plants and flowers that he most enjoyed growing and the physical and emotional effort it takes to create a beautiful garden. I began to see what makes him such a brilliant architect – his simple deep-rooted passion for honest elegant beauty.
It turned out to be the best kind of day: generous-spirited, heartwarming and liberally peppered with laughter, gossip and fun. A truly memorable show. Thanks Alan.