Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Natural Good Taste - Tomorrow Is A Long Time

So, is this too much? Is it too showy, too in your face?  Shall I take something off - the gold dog collar say, or should I just add a fascinator?

Taste is a slippery devil at the best of times, I wouldn't want you to think I had none, or the wrong sort, or was altogether too self-conscious about it.  So I'll just throw this denim jacket over the top, then people won't think I was trying too hard.

It's easy to undershoot or overshoot the cursed requirement to express yourself in everything you choose and do.  There are those who think that the very worst error of taste is to worry about what others might think of what you choose.  They may be right, although such an intervention is unhelpful when choices have to be made and money spent.  Still, nothing could be more boring than someone else's uncertain but stubborn jittering over everyday choices.  I know it, and, as I furnish and help arrange the building of two houses, I confess it.

Taste is not divided into good and bad for nothing.  On some level, it's a moral universe involving ignorance, extravagance, and folly.  Or imagination, intelligence and sensitivity.  Some people tell me plastic surgery is fine if it's very well done by someone expensive and tasteful.  Is it?  Or are some choices only damnable, however fine their execution? 

My choices have been made - all I have to do is worry now, will it look cheap and nasty?  Have I cut the wrong corners?  I don't imagine I've been too ostentatious - I haven't really got the imagination to do that.  The gardens are untouched as yet, only their principles clear.  The Italian one will be, without surprising anyone, meadowy, "natural", curvy like the hills.  The English one is very small.  It will be full of sweet scented winter flowerers and delicate evergreens; more formal, slightly stuffed.  I love a bit of glittery green bulk on a cold winter's day. 

Of course, good taste seems a mealy-mouthed and pettifogging sort of praise to wish to earn, when we gardeners long only to create beauty, serenity and interest.  But never under-estimate it, nowadays good taste includes the flourish of originality.  You can't get away with just not offending - there has to be something more interesting than that.  But perhaps good taste is best not aimed at consciously, or you'll end up strangled. 

I'm not trying to be too categorical with my pictures.  They're food for thought in matters of taste.  The above was an Australian design for Chelsea, quite a few years ago.  I'll be honest, it upset me, but perhaps there is a place where it would pass muster - a shopping centre maybe.

Now what about these ducklings?  Are they funny and clever?  Or ugly and silly?  Are they bad taste?  I cannot ask if they are good taste, it wouldn't make sense.  And that tells us something else about good taste. It's a sort of base-line requirement; it can be trumped by glamour, or art or child-pleasing whimsy, as in this case, from the garden at Lake Konstanz.  Perhaps we only need think about it at all in relation to ordinary, necessary things, like paving or furniture.

But we've all seen how a charming, bright new idea in garden decoration can plummet to ubiquitous cliche, sometimes within a season.  And there it is, floundering around in the bad taste pool.  I'm sure you know the sort of thing I mean; how tasteless it would be to name culprits.  Money has been shelled out, but cachet is lost.  See, that's what I'm afraid of, wrong spending.  With so much else so worrying, and when others have none to waste, it's the poorest possible taste to even mention it.

This is my old garden.  The wiggles are perhaps in poor taste in a small garden, pretending to an untrue naturalism.  It was a compromise forced by tasteless greed for plants and a diminishing wedge-shaped garden.  The width of the steps was however always a comfort to me - now it's my mantra, always make a small number of steps wide.  A moment of Good Taste has gripped me by the throat.  I'll have to find more than that to cling to in my Italian garden viz.

The song of the day is Tomorrow Is A Long Time.  From a maudlin emotional cliche' of the pop-fodder of the time, lost or departed love, the very young Dylan fashioned a faultless description of the self in sorrow.  It was never released on a regular album and is to be found on a Greatest Hits compilation - Volume II, sometime after its creation.   I think it's relatively well-known, but hope that you will track it down and listen if it is new to you.

For this song is about an ordinary, necessary thing -  the equivalent of the paving or furniture of a life.  Getting through a bad time, when you're disappointed and unsure.  Love has failed, you're miserably low and sad.   And it's an emotion cheapened in song by a million fresh-faced crooners.  What can exploring such emotions have to do with exhibiting perfect taste?  Listen again and find out.

Partly, it's because the protagonist is thinking.  He observes his own disorder, even as he sings it, and anatomises it.  We recognise the loss of identity and meaning, even of our very own selves, when grief overwhelms us and the universe is cancelled.  The charm of making the effort to tell us, properly, how it feels, when it's so very hard to connect; perhaps that's where we feel the element of taste.  The song is made of intelligence and care - honest and worthy materials.

Talking of materials and honesty - too much cut stone, carried too far, makes me inexplicably anxious. I know there's a lot of stone in the world.  Perhaps it's a vision of children in quarries, or of endless pressure-washing.  Or of ships struggling across the sea, full of stone. I see my arguments may not be well-founded.

I've always liked concrete for its democracy, if not for its carbon emissions. The Rothschilds at the Jardin Ephrussi obviously felt the same, we have so much in common.  Here it's pretending to be something else - I'm not sure what.  Perhaps that's why it nearly gets away with it; the pretence doesn't begin to work.

And this next one is concrete, and even corrugated iron, made rather lovely in my view.  Like the song, care and honesty, intelligently used.  Sometimes it means more to work with what you have.  And that's really more natural for me, bodging about with what I've already got, gathering some bits and pieces discarded in other gardens and wearing pre-loved clothes.  But I didn't make this.  Strangely it was in an otherwise entirely indifferent hotel garden.  And it was like someone speaking to me.

There's another element to the good taste of the song.  Unmanaged emotion is uninteresting on the whole, even if you can find a good tune to lean it on.  In this song the singer uses every tool -  his clear but varied voice, his increasingly strong and controlled words and a sweet and simple melody - to master and communicate his feelings.  In doing so, he magically re-sizes them, changes their proportions, not to diminish them, but to contain them.  I find that moving - you can hear growth happening, even though there is nothing but uncertainty ahead. 

Natural growth in my garden in Italy in July - a tiny wild erigeron and tatty willow. Totally untouched. Natural good taste in white and silver.  Just wait till I mess it up

Of course proportionality matters, nearly more than anything else, in all matters of judgement and taste.  But there's even more to the song.

Listen again to the the sensuality of his love's remembered pounding heart as she lay next to him, his longing and sleeplessness, the artless, clever confusion of trails and times and verbs and nouns in the first few lines.  Three verses: an endless highway, echoing footsteps and a silver, singing river, plus, far off, in the distance,  the structure and echoes of poetry you already know and half forget.  Natural, universal feelings;  like something found, not made.  Unerring, unconscious, good taste.  And in one so young!

I can't deny that there's something in the song that appeals to the mother in me - that innocence, that pain.  But we'll put that aside and stick with the good taste, no foot out of place across this quagmire of adolescent emotion.

Proportions, honest materials, flow, unity, a sense of timeless rightness - all essential to a good garden.  But you also need a beating heart to lift it into meaning and beauty.  That heart is the taste, or personality,  of the maker, or of the owner. If their intention keeps hitting you in the face, something might be wrong, as in the gardens where a new artwork faces you at every turn.  If, on the other hand, the whole thing is rather dull, you need a heart.

Time softens and confuses. The designer disappears. The heart then belongs to the garden not the chooser behind it.  The garden acquires an air of inevitability - that insouciant air that can look like the hand of beautiful nature.

Outlying parts of Hartland Abbey.  That red, a natural heart,  a stroke of taste.

It becomes hard to see how such a garden could be different; time sanctifies and everything seems as though its always been there.  When that happens straight away, you know you've got it right.

And so art and nature cohere and seem to change places, like Dylan's words at the beginning of the song. A beautiful garden is suffused with its own rightness and unique inventiveness, almost seeming to transcend good taste, but actually quite unable to escape from it.