A few weeks ago Matthew Appleby published a piece here about the use of celebrities in the media. It produced a great deal of comment, which you can see here, together with the original piece. In the course of all that comment it seemed to me that the topic moved on a little – or perhaps moved backwards: to the question ‘what do we want the garden media for?’ If we are going to complain about how it does its job, perhaps we need to establish what that job is, first.
One of the comments came from Monty Don; a view from inside what is still the most influential medium in the garden world, television. Here it is again (with his permission) – with my response.
(since this was published this piece has appeared in the Guardian – interesting in the light of this discussion: “…..The fear of seriousness, and the assumption that seriousness is necessarily humourless, has to be overcome….
Anne Wareham, editor
What do we want the garden media for?
I hesitate to dip my toe in these waters but for what it is worth, here is my pennyworth.
A number of points: Television, high-paying journalism, big name designers et al are all driven almost entirely by commercial pressures. Numbers rule. So if you earn your living in the gardening media – as I and a number of people posting here do – then you are pretty much forced to go with the numbers to earn your living. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
Matthew and any other horticultural journalist would give their eye-teeth to get a highly paid gardening column – even if it meant simplifying and repeating those simplicities. Most garden readers and viewers are decent people wanting information and entertainment. They are, in some form, paying for that and you, writer or broadcaster, have to respect that.
Having been a horticultural hack for 25 years and written for every newspaper and most gardening mags I know that I would rather be read by three million people every week than speak to 300 like-minded souls. Television is a mass medium. Always has been. The more people you reach, the better. This does not necessarily mean you have to dumb down but certainly means there is always a pressure to. I think there is a compromise which is to try and simplify things and to inspire. Then people can move on and up.
Books are the medium in which one can truly express yourself – as Anne and others here have notably done. But gardening books sell tiny numbers compared to cooking for example. The great danger – as with the entire horticultural world – is that like speaks enthusiastically to like, everyone gets terribly pleased with themselves and their world draws a little tighter around them.
In the end the real pleasure is the doing. Almost everything interesting about technical gardening has already been said. I would much rather just garden at home than write or film about about it but if one has to go to work it is a pretty damn good way of doing it. So the best thing that one can possibly do as a writer or broadcaster is to enthuse and inspire others to actually go out and do it so they too can experience that satisfaction.
Er, that’s it.
Monty Don writer and broadcaster.
I am familiar with your argument and I think it’s worth discussion here.
You say the real pleasure is in the doing – and this illustrates to me that you have particular preoccupations, besides earning your living, which your current roles satisfy. You can promote gardening as a worthwhile and important activity in its own right, and you can – with the odd hiccough – promote organic gardening. So far, so good. But that’s not very far, for some of us. You will note the aim of this website – ‘for those who want more than gardening from their gardens’.
Some of us would rather discuss serious aspects of gardens beyond the practical, and such discussion will always take place within a minority. A minority go to see Shakespeare but it is still worth producing Shakespeare. I think gardening in the media and on television is in much the same position that cooking was fifty years ago when Elizabeth David got sacked from her cookery column for being too radical for the newspaper of the time. There is not much range and the quality is dubious.
But things change. Television has changed. I prefer a comparison with music and history to cookery, as I’ve seen a considerable number of serious programmes about these. A biography of Elgar on ‘mass media’ television, anyone? Yes – there it was last year, two hours of it, if I remember rightly. And Howard Goodall’s recent ‘Story of Music’ was the model for the equivalent programme on garden history. Television may be driven by commercial pressures and possibly such excellent programming may wobble, but as the number of channels has increased, so has its range – leaving gardens behind.
Some fifteen years ago Tim Richardson was telling me that no editor would ever publish anything critical of gardens in the printed media. That is no longer (quite) the case, even if there is still an expectation that such a thing should be flavoured with humour.
You are right about books, but they probably have a longer shelf life than television – I cut my garden teeth on garden books written fifty or a hundred years ago. I’m delighted to see Graham Stuart Thomas acknowledged in our comments and delighted by Rory Stuart writing a whole book considering how to look at and experience, and indeed critique, gardens. Even in the book world dramatic change is happening. The long tail grows..the internet has made books long out of print available once again. Books stay around more than ever.
This is my piece, not Matthew’s, so I will acknowledge that I give more weight to the web than he does and you do. And I am a bit out of touch with the media celebrities, though I agree with both of you that from what I do see it is orientated towards hands on, simplification and imitation. Aesthetics are not taken seriously. It is as if we had endless talk about how to write a book with no-one actually reading or discussing the end result: lots of Sunday painting classes and no Tate.
I don’t know exactly how things will continue to change, as it all moves so rapidly, but I note that it is now possible to have a serious conversation with a television gardener – in this case, yourself – in a way that would simply not have been possible a few years ago. There is a kind of painful democratisation beginning. Money also has ceased to be the be all and end all of communication – a considerable discussion it its own right – and making money in television, high-paying journalism and big name designing seems to me unlikely to be the future. More and more of us will earn our living exercising a variety of skills.
It is worth considering and creating a wider range of garden material; expanding our horizons and perhaps leading the way to a deeper consideration of all aspects of gardens in a variety of media. So – boundaries are shifting and there is increasingly room for more than practical gardening. The heartfelt emails I receive of appreciation for thinkingardens (and my writing) demonstrate that there is a demand for more.
I increasingly notice the gap between those who engage, in the social media and on websites and blogs, and those still adhering to the old and familiar. They and you need have no fear for your livelihoods, of course, but they will soon look as comically out of touch as Fanny Craddock.
Anne Wareham website