Extract from “The Photograph” by Penelope Lively

September 16, 2004

in Articles, General Interest

The Photograph - Penelope Lively

Fictional garden judging from Penelope Lively’s “The Photograph”

Today she is judging a garden competition in a prosperous London suburb.  This is an exacting process – not so much on account of the footwork, the relentless progress from garden to garden, but because of the diplomatic neutrality of manner that is required. She must remain polite but noncommittal; her reactions must be tempered – all right to indulge in the occasional indication of approval, but aversion must be contained. The garden owners are hovering, smiles glued to their faces, laser eyes trained on her. They would dearly like to get a look at the notes she makes on her clipboard. The organizers move around with her, a protective cohort. The atmosphere is foetid; the whole area steams with rivalrous emotion. A charity is involved here – most of these gardens are open in aid of something this weekend – but charity is not much in evidence right now.

Elaine walks amid roses. She notes the blackspot on ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’, assesses ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk,’ suppresses a shudder at ‘Peace’ and ‘Piccadilly’, communes with ‘Cardinal de Richelieu. She winces before a blaze of pelargoniums, appreciates some Dicentra eximia and Polemonium carneum, deplores a ghastly magenta Lavatera, takes attentive note of an unfamiliar Corydalis. It is impossible to sideline personal taste, but she tries to give proper credit to the demonstration of gardening skill and commitment, even when the products of these are a tortuously constructed rockery or a rash of carpet bedding.

The nation gardens according to whim, and there is whim on show today by the spadeful, though the dictatorial hand of television is also much apparent. Water is being moved around on the scale of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon: rills, channels, miniature rapids, fountains, ponds.

Contemporary gardening is a question of engineering quite as much as of plantsmanship. The furnishings are diverse and elaborate; some gardens are ankle-deep in gravel, others have absorbed a lorry-load of beach pebbles, one has a fifteen-foot plastic totem pole, in another a Roman bust rears from shrubbery. Occasionally Elaine finds herself in a time-warp space of rectangular lawn surrounded by a border of annuals; the accompanying organizers glance nervously at her, wearing deprecating smiles. They hurry her along the street, where a wild garden is on show, a tangle of poppies, scabious, ox-eye daisies and meadowsweet tucked into the end of a fifty-foot plot.

She is looking for structure, for imaginative use of plants, for interesting colour combinations, for evidence of horticultural prowess along with individuality. She seldom finds all of these. Some disastrous concept, or a promising design is betrayed by unfortunate plantings. Take this long narrow back garden, for instance: its length and narrowness have been quite cleverly disguised, the space broken up by bold groupings of shrubs, a wandering path to one side leading away to a focal point at the end. But the focus is a dump of pampas grass, that old stalwart of the suburban front garden, which sits there harsh and uncompromising amid the bosky setting. What went wrong here? Elaine frowns at the pampas grass, and makes a note on her clipboard. At the same moment, Kath floats into her head, along with another garden.

Published here by kind permission of David Higham Associates.

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