Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Working Class Gardens

‘If you saw my little backyard
"Wot a pretty spot", you'd cry
It's a picture on a sunny summer day
Wiv the turnip tops and cabbages
Wot people doesn't buy
I makes it on a Sunday look all gay’

I can still vividly recall my first encounter with the British - I mean English - class system. I was five or six, on the train from Swindon to Paddington, sharing trainspotting duties with my brother, Keith; he was on one side of the carriage, and I was on the other. After a while, a woman asked us if we were technically cheating (‘wagging’), as each one of us was recording the numbers of engines seen by the other.
She wasn’t being critical; in fact, she was obviously enjoying our company and our high spirits; it wasn’t the content of what she said, it was the form.
‘The neighbours finks I grow 'em,
And you'd fancy you're in Kent
Or at Epsom if you gaze into the mews
It's a wonder as the landlord
Doesn't want to raise the rent
Because we have such nobby distant views’

She was beautiful, and had a cut glass 1950s BBC R.P. voice. I remember deferring to her immediately, thinking she must know best. But why? The only similar sociolect I could have heard would have been on the wireless on Listen with Mother. (I only have to hear that piano duet and I’m back in seventh heaven on my mum’s knee.) I can only suppose that fifteen minutes of that diction a day had been enough to inculcate unquestioning obedience within my mind and personality: proper Reithian job effectively done.

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the Eastward could be seen
Wiv a ladder and some glasses
You could see to 'Ackney Marshes
If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between

This memory came back to me the other day, listening to a feature on the Today programme, whilst washing up. This is unusual for me: I rarely listen to anything on that programme apart from the news; its neoliberal market economics orthodoxy is too much like propaganda to my head. However, I was stuck at the sink and couldn’t be bothered to cross the room to turn the switch, and so I serendipitously caught a feature about the viewing of ‘Art’ in public spaces. As you probably know, the National Gallery has decided to allow cameras and smart ‘phones and so on to be used within its hallowed halls. The feature obvs was based upon two opposing perspectives.

We're as countrified as can be
Wiv a clothes prop for a tree
The tub-stool makes a rustic little stile
Ev'ry time the blooming clock strikes
There's a cuckoo sings to me
And I've painted up "To Leather Lane A Mile"

The high art cultural toff argued that one ought to view a piece of art with endless contemplation within a sort of solipsistic state and sense of isolation. To take a selfie would be an inferior, invalid and, as it were, a sort of counterfeit experience. The point of such artistic experience is to view the work of art in exactly the way that the artist intended it to be viewed (sic) (?).
Wiv tomatoes and wiv radishes
Wot 'adn't any sale
The backyard looks a purfick mass o' bloom
And I've made a little beehive
Wiv some beetles in a pail
And a pitchfork wiv the 'andle of a broom

The cultural relativist antagonist replied: taking a selfie within an exhibition might lead to later contemplation at home or socially and, the image might be shared on social media, with consequent cultural colloquy etc.

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And Rye 'Ouse from the cock-loft could be seen
Where the chickweed man undresses
To bathe 'mong the water cresses
If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between

The radio programme and the consequent railway carriage memory have coincided with my reading of Margaret Wiles’ The Gardens of the British Working Class; indeed, the book may well have contributed to the recapturing of this recollection of class: such is the power of madeleine moments on the lawn.

There's the bunny shares his egg box
Wiv the cross-eyed cock and hen
Though they 'as got the pip and him the 'morf
In a dog's 'ouse on the line-post
There was pigeons, nine or ten
Till someone took a brick and knocked it off

Gardens and horticulture, both past and present, have involved all sorts of value judgements about U and non-U; about aesthetics and snobbery; about culture and deference (as Disraeli said of the working class: ‘angels in marble’); about fashion and taste; about keeping up with the Joneses; about looking down an array of noses, and all in a sort of horticultural R.P. where the Keatsian adage about the fusion of Truth and Beauty sits side by side with a group of self-validating cultural value-systems.

The dust cart though it seldom comes
Is just like 'Arvest 'Ome
And we made to rig a dairy up some'ow
Put the donkey in the wash'ouse
Wiv some imitation 'orns,
For we're teaching im to moo just like a kah

But what continuities and change do we find when we look at the history of British working class gardens?

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And 'Endon to the westward could be seen
And by clinging to the chimbley
You could see across to Wembley
If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between

Well (no pun intended), I hope to show you after the next verse, but let’s sing that first (crescendo):

Though the gasworks is at Woolwich
They improve the rural scene
For mountains they would very nicely pass
There's the mushrooms in the dust-hole
With the cowumbers so green
It only wants a bit 'o 'ot 'ouse glass.

Now back to the list:
How many kinds of histories dwell in an English working-class garden?
I’ll tell you now of some that I know, and those I miss, you’ll surely pardon…

1. Medieval open field strip systems; gleaning on a common; subsistence;
2. John Ball: “When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?”
3. Gerard Winstanley: “true freedom lies… in the use of the earth";
4. Anti-enclosure riots, tearing down fences and hedges;
5. The Chartist Land Scheme: escape from the town and factory;

I wears this milkman's nightshirt
And I sits outside all day
Like the ploughboy cove what's mizzled o'er the Lea
And when I goes indoors at night
They dunno what I say
'Cause my language gets as yokel as can be

6. Crazy paving, garden gnomes, garden ornaments;
7. Diary of a Nobody; vegetable competitions; allotments;
8. Chrysanthemums; dahlias; flower competitions; window boxes;
9. Bulbs; roses; privet; conifers; ponds; geraniums; bedding plants;
10. Carpet bedding; municipal parks (‘The poor will steal the flowers.’);
11. Seed catalogues; garden centres; gardening magazines;
12. Gardening programmes; the lawn; borders; cottage gardens;

Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
And soapworks from the 'ousetops could be seen
If I got a rope and pulley
I'd enjoy the breeze more fully
If it wasn't for the 'ouses in between

13. Terraces, council houses, suburbia, prefabs, tower blocks…

If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between
(Edgar Bateman / George LeBrunn)
Gus Elen - 1899

The Gardens of the British Working Class – it makes you think about how we express ourselves in what we think is an expression of free will.

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