Thursday, 27 October 2011

Somewhere else - Isis

Dylan is not quite Edith Piaf, someone I thought a lot of until I saw That Film;  he is not so dramatic, nor so needily demanding.  But he is interested in creating a bit of drama and atmosphere and sometimes he does this by taking you somewhere else.  An exotic setting, in time or space, is a quick route to excitements of every kind.  Sometimes I think he sees all women as exotica, but perhaps I've just got a letter wrong.

I've been thinking about how gardens, sometimes, weirdly, try to take you somewhere else.  To be in one place and yet perversely intend to make it seem to be another - how can that make sense?  Well that's a dumb question:  fantasy under control, travel without movement and change without adjustment - of course they are things we would like.  We can be carried away, somewhere else, anywhere but here; in this featureless suburb, this nameless backwater of a nameless town, in a country so familiar as to be invisible.

So we can see why people do it - recreate a bit of a Caribbean island, Kyoto or Morocco.  There is nothing new in this, nor is it specific to the UK, although I fear our penchant for incontinent plant-collecting, plants which we then have to put together somehow, makes us particularly prone.

In France they have Le jardin anglais - a phrase still in current use.  Here's an interpretation on the grand scale.

The interesting thing about this version, and I'm afraid I cannot remember the name of the chateau, is that nothing but the stream curves.  We would normally expect all the component parts to bend whimsically about, where an English garden is intended.  Here is discretion,  a curving stream replacing the usual huge rectangular plank of water laid out into the countryside.  I think it's both beautiful and different.  And that's the trick, don't adhere myopically to the rules of an exotic formula - choose elements and make resonance and beauty the aim rather than slavishness.  None of it looks the least bit natural of course, but fair enough.

Let me cut to the chase here.  Wouldn't Japanese gardens ( unless they're in Japan) look a lot better if you left the lanterns out?  See what you think.

It's from Pine Lodge in Cornwall.  To me it's what makes the whole thing, which is much bigger than you see, a pastiche, which sounds rather liked a baked good, which I would love.  What we want, I think, is a reference, cleverly and subtly placed. So easy to say of course.  Let me try this one on you:

Ridiculous, I know, but it looks a bit Japanesey to me.  And it's not clamouring for recognition, just a little hint, a slight surprise, a freshening of the eye.  It's from Ken Caro in Cornwall. The scale is extended but the elements are few.

Gardens that try to be somewhere else than the country where they're found, with a different culture, different plants and different weather are not usually trying to convey a deeper meaning.  They're saying " let's pretend we're different people and we're somewhere else, perhaps having a better time". I begin to think a hinting inaccuracy might be the most telling way to do it.

So, now to the exotic garden proper - the one with all the leaves.  Now I wish I didn't have to turn to Great Dixter again for this, but it's the one I know.  Yew hedges and a garden building surround partitioned beds full to bursting with large leaved jungle plants, bamboos and hot-coloured flowers.  Everything seems enormous.  You feel short, overwhelmed and quite keen to get out of there. It's hard to see, everything's very close and rather fleshy. Is it exciting or oppressive?

But I think the problem is actually that nothing is big enough to dominate and create a little space around itself.  We're trapped in a cage with fierce plants, cheek to leaf.  That's fine for a while, but the meadow outside seems to be calling.  Hard to think in here. My discomfort is not because it's particularly unconvincing, indeed it's jolly clever to get them all growing so well and looking so tropical.  I must admit though, that the eucalyptus strike a slightly odd note, in with the jungle.

So that won't be one I'll try to emulate, I'm sure it must be possible to calm the banana and relax the tetrapanax, but in the end, I doubt I really want to, the resonances are not compelling enough for me.

This is what I like, a Mediterranean theme, expressed mainly in plants.  It's from Mount Edgecombe; it's very subtle and could take an appropriate artifact.  Note that many of the plants are actually Antipodean.  I love these kindly natural topiaries, with resinous smells and bulgy shapes.

You'll be wondering which of Dylan's many songs of elsewhere I'll be referring to.  Let's have Isis, from Desire, an album where most things are foreign.  I should not fail to mention that he wrote it with Jacques Levy so he cannot take all the credit.

He sings it a bit strangely, mouthing the words as though they're in an unknown language.  It's a strong narrative,  featuring an estranged marriage and the singer, a wandering husband looking for some kind of way back.  After a bit of laundry he teams up with a mysterious stranger and they speak oddly to each other about a bargain and a quest.

They end up  in trouble amongst "pyramids embedded in ice", the companion dies of contagion, the singer fails to find the jewels and necklaces, disposes of the body and sets off back to his rather Egyptian wife Isis, who seems to have been waiting patiently for him.  She is ready to accept him again, despite his angry remarks.  We have cold, high Northern mountains and an incessant driving back and forth rhythm, like a Mexican rider lololloping along on a horse.  A little way away, a slightly Spanish violin gnaws away.  In the hullabaloo of internationalism you might pick up mythic resonances, Homer's Odyssey say, or The Hobbit.

I define these elements partly to show how incomplete and at odds to each other they are.  The coherence is all in the sound, and it is total.  The song is extraordinary and unusual: there's not a cliche in it.   I do enjoy the singer's indignation about how "the snow was outrageous".

Here's something else that's fairly outrageous - in a different way

It looks like a golden calf to me but seems to be in an oriental setting. Surreal and surprising anyway, in a garden which is a picaresque journey, with some Sphinx, a Swiss cottage, Italianate topiary and the biggest pot you ever saw at the end of a trek to the end of the world.  It has the Great Wall of China and many other delights.  It's not sensible, it's very flashy entertainment.  Biddulph Grange of course-  late Victorian fun and games.  Almost Isis in its confusion of references.

So where have we got to?  A notion that slavish cliches are not the best way of bringing a feel of elsewhere into a garden, however charmed you are by foreign ways. A subtle suggestiveness might work better. Or you can go all out for clashes of cultures and end up with a theme park.

The protagonist in Isis discovered something alarming, his trust in his companion was misplaced, his quest misconceived.  No place like home, as I don't think Odysseus ever said.  The journey to foreign parts has to be taken, but its value is the fresh light it can cast on what we left behind.  And I wonder how many more times we'll have to hear that. And will it ever be completely convincing?

For the triumphant reconciliation that is achieved in the marriage at the end of the song is rather one-sided.  The dialogue is so conditional and the focus so centred on the husband's experience.  Perhaps he has only come back because he couldn't find the treasure he was looking for.  Little seems to have changed and the disappointment of the traveller cannot be the spur to happy home-making.  It seems unlikely that his longing for alien shores has been quenched and the music continues to ring flamboyantly and exotically in your ears.

I'll end with a very subtle garden reference to another country, like a little piece of lace.  It's from Claverton Manor, near Bath in the UK and it is  the seat of The American Museum.  There is a recreation of Mount Vernon and some other rather limited elements of Americana.  But this is the one I have chosen, eliminating clutter.

Just a long string of white picket fence set in the green. Almost a  thought, or a piece of writing across the landscape.  Somewhere else, conjured in the imagination.  I doubt that it could ever quell raging wanderlust, but it is, to my eye, both pleasing and resonant.

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