Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Witting or unwitting - Someday, Baby

 A certain amount of humour makes life worth living, whatever you're doing. Of course gardeners, often struggling around on their owns, have to learn to appreciate their own jokes - I've always found that a very satisfactory way to go on.

In a minute I'll show you a few gardening jokes, but before I do that, I'd like to introduce the Dylan song.  It's Someday Baby from Tell Tale Signs.  I don't know if it's known for being funny, and there are many more clamouring for notice, but this is one with a certain tone of voice in a couple of lines that makes me smile wryly, or, according to mood, laugh aloud.  So give it a listen and watch the negative interplay of love and the self.  It is only on this version by the way.  Don't listen to the one on Modern Times and lose all faith in my glorious and complete objectivity.

Wit's a slippery beast anyway as we all know. I am not one of those who ever likes to turn to dictionary definitions - they often seem to lead down another set of equally blind alleys when you're trying to think about something.  I can head down those on my own.

So, none of that, just what makes me smile, with the full knowledge and agreement of whoever made me smile, for surely the creator must be aware of the joke, otherwise it is just ridiculousness, or oddity, or worse.  Gardening jokes are often like slow-motion versions of those fragile, exquisite moments, when you say something and it comes out meaning more than you thought, funnier, more revealing.  Others laugh, and, being human, you claim it for your own.  Wit is in those who hear, as well as in those who speak -  it's a shared endeavour, although people who do it for a living won't think so.   But they don't have the help of nature, which can throw in a comedy turn too, though it may be the defensive wit of the bullied, the attacked and the interfered with.

Here's a garden, now sadly lost to us, which, though it wouldn't have made you shout with laughter, was imbued with some sort of soul of natural wit.  A skit on domesticity and wildness together, each crossing the boundaries into the other.  It's Priona, made by Henk Gerritsen, in the middle of the blandest possible landscape between Holland and Germany.

Those rearing, looming shapes, had such life, and bafflement, about them - pity, laughter, surprise, all at once.  You can almost see the collaboration of growth and an amused perceptive gardener.

Topiary chickens in front of a henhouse were more obvious and have been much copied.  Here are two other subtler moments.

I'm not saying it's hilarious, but it's not just a box hedge, it's a comment on a box hedge, it's not just different and pretty, it's clever, it looks like box is made of something heavier, and more fluid.  Or it's like some sort of sewing.  I don't know, is it just me.

Let me try one more.

Subtle beyond bearing, this was witty in its effect upon the visitor - like a pinball, if that's what they're called, you boing ( that's "boing") from one directionally placed but short hedge to the next, and all the while there's this soft woolly wildness all around, a little bit caged in but not quite, flowing over and under the edges.  I can't possibly ask if it's just me again, but here I am, amused and pleased.

So that's my exemplary witty garden - I'll offer a few more in a minute.  Someday, Baby.

Any self-respecting Dylan fan will point out that this song is copied, some words, basic structure, tune and feeling, from a blues standard of the same name, attributed to Sleepy John Estes - but Dylan elaborates it, builds upon it and holds the unstated threat in the title up for unsparing examination.  I suppose he also shifts its setting, as he must, creating a complicated integrity - it's barely bluesy, not perhaps so desperate, or subjugated. 

The song is, on one level, a devastatingly casual but complete condemnation of a current or soon-to-be-ex female partner.  Any moral attribute you think a partner ought to have - honesty, kindness, loyalty for example, well she's the proud possessor of the opposite.  The protagonist explains his sad situation, he is indeed Po' him.  She has destroyed his self-confidence, taken his stuff, worried him incessantly, kicked him out, put him down and tied him up in knots.

Surely this can't be funny, especially when he's upset and angry.  Or maybe he's a straightforward abuser; he's going to wring her neck, how can that make anyone smile?  He's not a character who seems to find any joy in life, or take any responsibility for himself. 

Well of course that's it.  We accept his initial description of the situation, knowing nothing else.  But as the song proceeds the light falls on him as well as her - we end up seeing the distortion of a relationship where unreal love has been replaced by malice and disappointment.  It's the self-pitying bombast that makes it funny - you could feel sympathy, but there's not a lot of point with this sad character.  You can only laugh and step aside.  It's the inflections that make it hilarious:

"When you was cold, I bought you a coat and hat
I think you must have forgotten about that"
Sly and self-congratulatory, the bean-counter emerges, ready to slaughter because his gift has not received the returns he expected.  It's like a parody of generosity, but recognisable, like a Hogarth caricature.

And there's another line as good "You're potentially dangerous, and not worthy of trust".  Nothing on it's own, but sung with the ring of strict judgementalism.  He sounds like a thwarted lawyer, pompously arriving at a measured conclusion - she's risky, she might be very risky.  He goes on to contemplate his chances of destroying her - he's an unattractive Hamlet who's got everything backwards.  But you have to hear the tone of voice, it's not the words, it's the way they're sung.

Well, I won't have convinced you if you didn't already smile when you heard this song - that's the way it is with such precarious knowing wit.  And the version on Modern Times doesn't even include these lines, let alone the inflections, so loses itself back in the rather general misery.  If you're  fond of the Estes original you're unlikely to hear the humour in this one.  Not everything works, in gardens, or Dylan.

Here's a garden that could be considered witty, and colourful, and clever.  It's The Little Cottage, in Lymington, Hampshire, UK.

I understand Anne Wareham set an old television in her woodland at Veddw, thus questioning most things we take for granted.  I never saw it but it's there in my mind's eye.  My mind's mouth smiles.

Let's turn to Madoo, a garden in The Hamptons, on Long Island, New York State.  Robert Dash made it, and has written a delightful book about the experience, called Notes From Madoo.  It's a more practical treatise than one might expect, but wise and wittily eccentric.  Strange that he does not talk of humour, yet his garden is a series of humorous vignettes.  It must be me then.

And in fact that is so.  On rereading his book I become aware that the thinking behind the garden is deeply serious, underlain with excellent principles and an acute sensibility.  Here's a man who strips the leaves from his macleayas ( you know -  that incredibly tall rampageous plume poppy, little bunches of beige flowers at the top of bluey white trunks beset with large fan-shaped nacreous leaves), strips the leaves to reveal the full beauty of the stems - these plants are herbaceous and grow as you watch; they also exude a golden sap.  So he's not slapdash.  He is however a follower of abstract expressionism in the garden and this explains his use of colour, his distribution of effect and his completely fresh thinking.  He's also American, his garden is American, his plants are mostly American.  He is marvellous for that; he may use all the multi-cultural paraphernalia of gardens - but you can't detect it, it all looks like where it is.

Maybe that's the wit - a freshness of vision and a sense of delight in the essential nature of the place and the plants.  Here are a few poor photos.

Here we see a collaboratively witty theme of the garden; wonderful pruning, stems and trunks, bending and turning.  Also maze-like wandering paths, turning and connecting.

Then there are proper jokes, a tiny gesticulating Neptune caught in a wire cage and  upright concrete logs set symmetrically, but falling about wildly, like leftovers from an earlier garden. 

Here, a lilac gazebo, embedded in a milkweed border, not set apart in the open, like a gazebo ought to be.

Here, well you can see.  The box knot is a minimal reference, the ladder steals the scene.

A lathe passageway to a sublime collection of trunks.  It's the live and the dead, the light,  the use of real stuff, and the care for the simple that surprises.

 Here's the best-known element - influential in its time.

And the last one, seats gazing at a buddleia-backed artwork.  Note the colours and the masses.  Theatrical.  But buddleia!

Like the song, this garden is not a simple description of a situation.  It's a comment, it's conscious; we're asked to consider the nature of the endeavour as well as enjoy it for its own sake. Madoo uses quiet American wildflowers like the most desireable of exotics. Vegetables too occupy prized positions.

Garden humour often aspires at the squirting of water at surprising times on people passing by.  No, that's not very witty, though fun if you're small.  The Villa D'Este may pull it off, of course.  Or it places amusing artifacts here and there, dragonflies made of scrap metal, or huge stone acorns under oak trees for example.  Written comments are employed, but I exempt them, autocratically.  Clothes and gardens should not be written on.

Here are colourful terrapins. 

On the whole, such things just cause me to experience patience.  No one could deny the benefits of that.

Finally, here's an example of garden humour that makes you laugh with sheer wonder at the daring expenditure.  It's a bronze fallen tree in the centre of the Tuileries gardens in Paris.  Enormous.  And funny because you could just as easily miss it.

Not at all sure that I've convinced myself, let alone you, with today's conjunction.  Wit is not easy, it may be the hardest thing - no wonder we value it so.  I set myself a hard task, and now I'm sorry.  Po' me.

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