Friday, 10 February 2012

In Praise of Shallowness


I’ve finally decided to come clean; I’m not a serious person, I’m a bit of fluff.  By nature, I’m a happy person, I always have been and, fingers crossed, always will be.  When my friends at school got angry and started smoking dope and listening to Neil Young, I was drinking lager, playing sport and listening to Shalamar.  At Uni in the mid 80s, the whole angry, anti-Thatcher thing passed me by as all I wanted to do was dance, “drink beer and train like an animal”.  I was in the forces in  my twenties but, when I look back I don’t think about being in Belfast or South Armagh, rather I remember being in Sam’s or the GX when the Bootneck National Anthem “The Only Way is Up” was put on and the whole place went insane. 

Anyway, more years than I care to think about later, I’m now happily married with kids, two of whom are teenage girls.  One of the problems of having teenage daughters is that they like to choose the films that we watch and, as my wife typically piles in on their side, means that I get to watch a lot of chic flicks.  I complain but, to be honest, providing that they’re not too teenage or anti-man, I quite enjoy them.

This weekend it was Mamma Mia which we’ve seen a few times before and I will admit is one of the films that I like watching.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t put it on if I was in the house by myself, but I’ll take it over ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ any day of the week.  There’s also a slight nostalgia fest element as well, the first time I danced with my wife was to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” at a ball in Belfast.
Anyway, while I was watching the film my mind started wandering and I realised that Mamma Mia actually provides a metaphor for why I garden. Ok, this is a bit of a stretch but if you’ll indulge me then I’ll try to explain.

First of all, it’s beautiful.  I like the aesthetic.  The settings are beautiful, the weather is beautiful & I like to produce flowers that are beautiful.  I didn’t really enjoy producing vegetables but I do enjoy producing beautiful cut flowers.  Sadly, when I started to grow them, I discovered that most garden flowers are ugly.  I would select my seeds at the garden centre and, after investing months of hope and effort in them, I could have cried when I saw how unattractive the results were.  The fact that I persevered with cut flowers for more than one year is down to one single gladiolus that survived from the previous tenant.  It grew all on its own and was beautiful.  I took it home and, unlike my efforts, it was appreciated.  I learned that the area of flower production that needed most effort was in selecting the plants.  The best thing I did was buy Sarah Raven’s Cut Flower Collection as that’s a fantastic start when you haven’t developed your own aesthetic yet.  Since then, I’ve learned by reading and studying the works of other gardeners and florists but, if I’m honest, I’m still most influenced by Sarah.

Secondly, it’s hard work.  Here I’m talking about Meryl Streep’s character Donna.  She’s plainly a grafter and that’s what you need to be to be a gardener.  You have to enjoy the work.  Everyone wants a garden or an allotment that complies to the holy quadrinity and is organic, productive, low maintenance and attractive (ok, I know quadrinity probably isn’t a word but I’m on a roll).  The simple fact is that such paragons don’t exist.  You have to compromise.  My guess is that for reasonable sized plots you need to put in 100 hours a year if you want to be productive – more than that if you’re going the organic route.  And, when you think about it, 100 hours is quite a lot: that’s 3 hours a week in the summer.  If you don’t enjoy that work then you won’t get enough produce to merit putting that level of effort in.  The work has to be on the plus side of the equation.  If you don’t enjoy physical work, don’t garden.    

Lastly, and most importantly, it’s fun.  I meet far too many people who seem to have forgotten that gardening is a hobby and, ergo, you’re supposed to enjoy it.  At my, admittedly screamingly middle class allotments, I meet far too many people who finally got to the top of the queue and have bought the whole, worthy, eco, organic, hair shirt message that seems to be de rigour at the moment.  To be honest, as soon as I realise that’s what they’re like, I don’t even bother to learn their names.  I know I’ll watch them go from fresh faced enthusiasm to producing nothing, being defeated by weeds and giving up without ever actually having fun.  It’s all unnecessarily sad.

So that’s my gardening philosophy: beauty, hard work & fun – Did I mention I was shallow?