Christopher Lloyd – His Life at Great Dixter by Stephen Anderton

March 27, 2010

in Book Reviews, Reviews

Christopher Lloyd - His Life at Great Dixter by Stephen Anderton

Reviewed by Jane Powers

Just a month after Christopher Lloyd commissioned his friend Stephen Anderton to write his biography, the grand old man of British gardening died unexpectedly. The two had discussed the project only once, so the many strands of the eighty-four-year-old’s complex and energetic life remained in an intriguing tangle. But Great Dixter, the home of Christopher Lloyd, bestowed upon Anderton a gift: a hundred-year archive of family papers, including diaries, notebooks and letters. Anderton turned archaeologist, digging up material everywhere: in the attic, in drawers, in the decades-old strata of paperwork on his subject’s desk. He was assiduous in his hunt, and when he unearthed a “mouldering leather suitcase with rusted catches” containing a confetti of torn paper fragments, he duly pieced them together.

In his numerous books and extensive journalism, Christopher Lloyd recounted — many times — the story of his garden, and of how he came to be a gardener. So that narrative is well known. The tale of Christopher Lloyd, the man, however, is more of an enigma. It is that story that Stephen Anderton has set out to tell.

In his introduction, Anderton establishes “Christo” (as he was known to many of his friends) as an impatient, shabby octogenarian. We find him hopping from “one buttock to the other” in the passenger seat of his antiquated and grimy Volvo. He is being driven at speed — but not fast enough — by the author. The old man’s clothes are as ancient as his car: battered tweed jacket and decaying, antediluvian shoes. The smell of dog hair and decrepitude is all over the page.

After this unflattering glimpse of our protagonist in later years, the first half of the book — “Life under Daisy” — returns to an earlier point in time, and sets off anew. Its pace hurtles along like the old Volvo, careering through the landscape of the Lloyd family history. We wheel through the parents’ marriage (between businessman Nathaniel and the eponymous Daisy), the births of the six children (Christopher was the youngest), school days, college days, army days, teaching days, writing days, and, interspersed between them all, halcyon days in the garden. It is a rollicking and compulsive read. Anderton’s writing is lithe and perky, especially when it comes to the Lloyd family foibles and dysfunctions. His words dance around these with feline agility.

There is much to lampoon, especially in Daisy’s oppressive and self-important persona. She was descended, somewhat distantly, from Oliver Cromwell, a fact of which she was proud. His portrait hung over her bed. In deference to her ancestry, she adopted ostentatiously simple clothing: a dirndl for everyday wear, and full-blown Puritan dress for special occasions. She espoused diligence, duty and motherhood with gusto. Her micromanagement of her offspring was complete: no pie was too small to stick her finger into. If she was away from home, she issued several daily letters to an assortment of family members, charging each with various duties relating to the others. As her children began to fan out from the fold, her letter-writing took on the features of both a news service and a command post. She corresponded not just with her children, but with their teachers and friends. She regularly forwarded letters that she had received, or she transcribed selected passages into her dispatches. Her communiqués arrived with complicated but specific instructions, directing one person to forward this letter to that person, but not to the other, with or without the enclosure — as the situation demanded.

Daisy had particular ideas as to how people should lead their lives and comport themselves, and she was lavishly critical when anyone stepped out of line — which was much of the time. Even Queen Mary, who had been prevailed upon to visit Great Dixter, was lacking. The royal shortcomings were many, and included bulging ankles, ugly shoes and bad manners.

The Lloyd matriarch’s compulsively judgmental and constricted view of the world must have been key in forming the character of her children, especially that of her youngest, Christopher — the apple of her eye, with whom she shared a love of gardening. When he was a young man, she set about finding him a wife, and light-heartedly picked out a suitable nominee. The girl was still a child, a joke candidate, and no threat to the cosy mother-son bond.

The author is at his most entertaining when discussing the Daisy-Christo relationship, and it is with some regret that the reader finds her passing away in her favourite’s arms at the end of part one. She is ninety-two, and he is fifty-one. But Anderton is over-dogged at ramming home their closeness. “Somehow, they were made for each other,” he writes earlier, with gauche and palpable intention.

He is, of course, laying the ground for what is one of his recurring preoccupations: Christopher Lloyd’s homosexuality. He finds this endlessly interesting: speculating on whether his subject was ever sexually active, and with whom; and making much of the young gardening Adonises who took the older man’s fancy. Talk of famous peoples’ sex lives is absorbing, especially when the person under discussion is as oddball and iconic as Christopher Lloyd. But the homosexual theme rears its head so often, and in so many ways, that the reader becomes fatigued and puzzled. Over five pages are devoted to “l’affaire Piglet” involving not Lloyd, but a family friend who bore that nickname. Some of the material relating to it was contained in the torn-up paper fragments in the leather suitcase. The fact that they were preserved and then found by the author may have prompted him, understandably, to give them undue weight. (The liaison itself is already in the public domain, having been detailed by Valerie Grove in her biography of John Mortimer, one of the parties.)

In the second half of the book — “Life after Daisy” — we follow Christo in his career as writer, gardener, host and traveller. His energy was prodigious and enviable: he turned out articles, books and letters at a gallop; and he was forever tweaking, changing and experimenting in his high-maintenance, busy garden. After the death of his mother, he filled his house with friends and fellow gardeners. And although he was happiest at home, he also spent a fair amount of time away from Dixter, lecturing, plant hunting and garden visiting, often in the company of like-minded people. Globe-trotting is not always pleasant for homebody travellers, and Lloyd was no exception: the poor man was afflicted with haemorrhoids. Anderton is not shy about sharing this and other little ignominies, which suggests a lack of empathy for his friend. On occasion, the depiction of Lloyd verges on caricature.

This brings me, finally, to my unease with this almost superb book. For much of it, the author’s tendentiousness rumbles along so disconcertingly beneath the text, that one cannot help being distracted. Anderton’s ostinato motifs of amusing disparagement and over interest in sexual matters get in the way of what is otherwise an adroitly written biography. True, they make it an entertaining read, but for those of us who never met him, the mystery of who exactly was Christopher Lloyd remains unsolved.

Jane Powers – gardening correspondent for The Irish Times

Chatto & Windus
2010
Stephen Anderton
20.00
pp256
ISBN 9780701181130

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