Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Stealing Generosity - Sugar Baby


Words and ideas are always being misused, borrowed or stolen.  Rather like the domestic chainsaw.  Sometimes the borrower might sharpen the blunted and tired set of toothed blades. As far as I'm concerned, that's competence almost on a par with a moon landing, or directing an opera.  The chainsaw is vastly improved; we have a new beginning, refreshment and restoration.

Dylan is notorious for messing about with other people's stuff and the album "Love and Theft" puts the matter in a nutshell, he steals what he loves, he loves what he steals.  He picks pockets for tropes.  Then he lines them up with rhymes and music.  Adds feeling.  There it is, a song like Sugar Baby.  Only just hanging together, but full of mystery and a magnetism that comes from being a bit peculiar.

The song contains it's own trenchant and unexpectedly complimentary comment on the practice of bootlegging. There it is, the linking of theft and generosity.  Later we wander towards judgement day, via the dreadful behaviour of women.  The protagonist is evidently flawed so you don't have to believe everything he says, just take on board the sound of sympathy amongst the thefts. 

A clematis, possibly Belle of Woking

When you visit the domestic gardens that are so kindly flung open for the British gardening public, you're allowed to fish round for ideas; it's almost expected - the relationship between imitiation and flattery is completely understood.  On the whole the owner would be complimented if you said you were going to rush home and copy a bit of planting or a design feature.  They know it will look a little different in your garden, they're thrilled to have impressed favourably and the whole interchange will be one of communication and enthusiasm.

Just a common elder in bloom

I have had two weekends of open gardens, one in London, Tewkesbury Lodge, where I offered a little assistance.  The second around Canterbury, eighteen gardens, of which we, as visitors, managed about half, being late and pressed for time.  My photographs are mainly from the London set.  You would think there was no one there, that's just because I've been very clever, wanting to show you the gardens, and I've darted about, snapping things between and after people.  In fact turn-out was in the hundreds over the two days.

Blue Baptisia australis, with common moon daisies and gladiolus byzantinus

It's a very visible republic; the gardening one.  We're not mysterious to each other, we all know roughly what we love, and where the serious challenges lie.  People are modest about their own achievements.  Garden-owners let you in, laying themselves on the line; it's not really done to crash round hastily, without speaking.  If you speak, it's both best, and usually very easy, to find something pleasant to say.  There's plant-buying, chatting, and cake-eating and tea-drinking to be done.  Garden-owners are pleased, visitors are pleased, money is made for charity.  I'd love to see it in other countries too.

Of course some visitors barely garden at all in their own homes.  But those are particularly good value, lacking strong pre-conceptions and delighted to find plants they have never met before, open-minded and exploratory.  I was glad to meet some who were clear that their visit was a chance simply to enjoy being in gardens, at leisure outside. Chickens and vegetables add to the gaiety.

Grouped smaller backyard gardens are often interestingly ordinary, there's a gentleness about the whole experience that you don't get in the larger gardens which are often open more frequently and verge on the professional.  Here we have some rather good bits of relatively comfortable human nature; the plan to have a lovely day, cooperative effort, accommodation, welcome, industrious preparation, sharing.  Some people are imperfect, with complacency and sneering and so on, but we're not interested in those.

Carefully managed nettles and an original way with trellis

An upholstered and inviting front garden.  The layered tree is cornus macrophyllus.

A borrowed tree, a spot to sit

Now, there's a darker side to visiting gardens, and I don't plan to hide from it.  It's beautifully expressed by elizabethm in her blog .  She visits Beth Chattos's garden and emerges somehow deflated, depressed and made anxious by the beauty and excellence of what she sees.  It seems to diminish her own efforts and she  finds it hard to recover her confidence and equilibrium despite having loved what she has seen.  How rare to find someone with the honesty to explore this feeling - suddenly it seems that failure in our own eyes is a real possibility, in every part of life, even in  those things that seemed like reliable, soft solaces.  Our hobby turns out to be the Olympics after all, and we're neither ready, nor capable.  Those things we believed in, and prided ourselves on, how paltry they can seem.

Now I'm not putting up with this.  Of course the feeling is truly felt and truly expressed.  And some people are amazingly, unerringly talented.  And they're not all as well-known as Beth Chatto.  But we have to love what seems good, without letting it hurt us.  Find an idea you can thieve, adopt it, love it!  Perfectly natural, it's what history and culture are all about.  In the process the idea will gently transform into something of your own - it can do nothing else, for nothing stays the same out of its original setting.  And there is nothing new under the sun, and only ten stories.  Gardens are no different.  Despite the rage for novelty, change is torpid and styles are limited. 

An unusual front garden, , a winding path parallel to the house

So I've cast that problem aside, absolved Dylan, and diminished all artistic endeavour.  Just trying to spin it around and come out with the cheerful sharing and enthusiasm of a local garden opening.

I will say however, that sometimes I look at a garden I've made and am saddened at how poor it is, how far from what I'd hoped.  Harsh, true and difficult though that is.   No photographs.  It's awful to find oneself so personally inadequate, especially under the conditions of freedom, and even when it's only about gardens.  That's when finding a little something you're not crazy about in another person's garden, and preferably lowering your voice when you comment on it, can also be a way of stealing a little generosity.

Here's another rather small and bitter point.  You know those gardens that a person might have slaved over?  Visitors arrive and say enthusiastically "It's got such great potential".  They congratulate themselves on their own percipience!  They've understood nothing!  Down the road with them and their brainlessness.

  Abundance and width, straight lines, but informality.

So let us turn back to the song, which, to my mind, absorbs some harsh and difficult self-knowledge, but with wisdom and honesty.   Listen and be comforted.  The imperfections of a life lived are examined and accepted.

The bit about Aunt Sally seems to be the only "joke".  She's not really his aunt, she comes from Huckleberry Finn, where she offers an unwelcome refuge from uncertainty, disorder and freedom.   But who or what is Sugar Baby?  She could be the cost to him of settling down with the comfortable Aunt - that is, she could represent safety and comfort, the denial of risk, artistic freedom and change.  That's a denial, or a loss, that most of us fear and mourn with age, though we may never even have have properly tasted any of it.

The accusation of brainlessness seems cruel, but he might be talking to the brainless bit of himself.  There's plenty of brainlessness around;  hang on  to your brain and keep going.

The faceless Sugar Baby recedes and returns - there's something there but how could it be one thing?  He's moving through a life and a mind in the song, telling of what he's learnt.  Some things, and some people, must be let go, but love's not an evil thing - that's the least and the most you can say, and he sings it with real sweetness.  I would say another - gardening's not an evil thing either.

There's an occasional sound in this song, a soft sound in his voice - it's like a real reaching out.  You hear it on "now" at the end of the choruses.   I have a sense of all of us struggling along together, the sun blazing in our eyes, making mistakes, getting things wrong.  Cast off what's no good to you, lift your eyes up and beyond, see what matters.  A reasonable suggestion, even if I can neither seek my maker, nor do I expect to hear Gabriel's horn.

Keeping on going, as the song so strongly suggests we must, can be encouraged in the gardening world by the sharing and thieving of ideas.  That's how fashions get about, that's how stimulation spreads.  It helps you bring an analytical eye to what you see, helps you learn, helps you delight in the work of others.  Stealing and giving, all at once.

Here's an extraordinarily narrow border, about 18 inches deep, backed by a lowish wall.  This garden, in Kent, had many of these straight, plant-bordered walls and fences lining linked, squarish open areas around a farmhouse, set against meadows and fields, themselves hedged and fenced.  Only ordinary garden plants but they looked like elaborated hedgerows and created their own particular rhythm, breaking all the rules of depth in borders.  The enclosures were the garden.  A different idea, undertaken because the gardener found them easy to care for.  I liked it.  But it needs work. You can't easily see how narrow the borders are in these photos, so you'll have to be generous and take my word for it.

I don't know if I'll steal this idea yet, something similar has been rumbling away, to do with enhancing and developing hedgerows. But it was a sort of crystallisation, a kick along the road.

As you visit, speak only the truth.  But let your eyes and your heart hunt out what is interesting and what you can admire - even love. Evidence of thought and effort, and the staying of sterility and destructiveness - we can't do without those, they're the pre-requisites of a garden.   Even so, you might end up with nothing more than potential to praise - at that point, I flatter myself that I would engage my brain, and hold my tongue.  When I'm truly enamoured, I steal.  Thank you.


  1. I have a hard time getting into my gardens because half the year it's just brown, bare sticks. Great blog, this is some extremely deep stuff.

    1. I replied but failed to hit reply. so it's below.

  2. Thank you for reading and liking. Not everyone gets what I'm playing at. Very sorry about your garden and the brown sticks. You must be somewhere either very hot or very cold, or I suppose, both.

  3. Jane - this is wonderful stuff, profound and delightful. Why is there such delight in our gardens and so little in our interiors I wonder. The pictures make me homesick for the English summer but I wonder why we so often fail to make our indoor lives as lovely.

    P x

    1. Thank you Penny, your words give me great pleasure. Don't know the answer re interiors - never really thought of it that way despite current safe choice rate.

      This is a particularly good year for flowers in SE England anyway, enough water and now hot sun. And a good year for the roses, I expect you're singing now.

  4. Hi I’m Heather! Please email me when you get a chance! I have a question about your blog. HeatherVonsj(at)gmail(dot)com

  5. I loved the pictures in today's blog Jane. I had the fire poker as they called it in our town in California, at the bottom of my koi pond. I had forgotten about it. As for visiting the gardens, today we visited the Blue Lupine gardens looking for the Karner Blue Butterflies and another butterfly garden. I loved them all, but I decided I do not have the energy to keep a full sun garden anymore, and so I will travel to them and enjoy the generous work of others. Thank you for sharing these and the reminder of past gardens. gin

  6. I think Elizabeth was raising more than the issue of imitiating/stealing ideas. She felt an inadequacy in her own garden as a result of seeing Beth Chatto's, and later put her finger on what was troubling her about her own.

    I mention this only because I think it is one of the important things about that painful feeling of inadequacy when visiting a garden: it can challenge us to do better.

    It takes courage, I think, to do as Elizabeth did and face up to the feeling, recognising that it was telling her something worth paying attention to. But that's the way to good gardens, and they are so worth having. If rare.

  7. Hi Anne, how right you are; you have summed it up well. And Elizabeth was indeed courageous to face that feeling and describe it so honestly and well.

    And there are often good bits in gardens don't you think? Even if, as a whole, a particular garden might be less than its parts. Getting the good bits to join up, there's a challenge.