This is a delightful book.
I don't read The Telegraph newspaper. I don't read gardening books. I don't watch garden programmes on the television. But I like this book. I've been trying to think if any of my garden blogging friends wouldn't like it - and, well . . . I know I don't know you all personally but so far I haven't thought of anyone.
Since becoming addicted to my Kindle I've realised how important book covers are. I browse Amazon's pages and click on possibilities by the 'feel' of a book's title and its notional cover. When I was asked if I'd like to review 'Of Rhubarb and Roses' a little picture of the real (i.e. physical) cover was included in the email and I fell in love with it. I know this is an idiotic reason for reading a book - but, there you are - and I don't regret it.
Imagine the scene. There's a man stretched out asleep on a garden bench, panama hat over his face. His bench is oddly placed - vaguely in the middle of the lawn and sticking out from behind a bush and a formal flower bed. There's a huge, old fashioned push-mower nearby and despite the precise stripes up and down the very green lawn - none lead to it. Keeping him company, eyes contentedly squinting, is a disconcertingly large ginger cat with tabby markings and right up close to us, under an arch of red and white roses, there's a wheelbarrow rammed against the nearest flower bed. (I think we are standing in the flowerbed as we view the scene.) In the barrow are vegetables: carrots . . . a marrow . . . a cabbage . . . some celeriac . . . and a couple of apple-sized tomatoes. Across the barrow is a Daily Telegraph newspaper which seems to have been printed on a piece of wide, white board. The front-page photo is of a large church with a square stone tower. The headline - 'Beautiful Gardens'.
Behind the sleeping man is a tall garden wall with creepers growing over it from the other side and beyond this a host of deciduous trees in full leaf. The colours are bright without being gaudy and the whole thing breathes a stereotype which some of we English are contentedly tempted to associate with gentle, middle-class, country garden living. A mixture of muddled bizarreness and general warm sleepiness; an air of no-one-does-any-work-around-here-ness despite the effort which must have gone into hand-mowing the grass and creating the beautiful borders. The lawn is green. The slugs haven't eaten the plants. And the sun is shining.
Then there's the title. 'Of Rhubarb and Roses'. Isn't that wonderful? They sort of clash . . . the world is divided into Rose growers and Rhubarb growers. Well, maybe it isn't - but have you noticed how blogs divide into the flower kind and the vegetable sort?
All of which is on the outside but I explain this at length because it wonderfully summarises the book's inside. (A selection of wildly varied short essays which have appeared in the Telegraph garden pages between the 1940s and 2013.) The overall scene is harmonious but nothing sinks into it un-noticed. Topics are random. Writing styles contrasting. Characters strong - Vita Sackville-West, Christopher Lloyd, Germaine Greer, Anne Wareham, Constance Spry and a whole host of others - some of whom I've heard of and many I haven't (cos I'm an ignoramus). There are glimpses into gardening lives (how Roy Lancaster caught the gardening bug . . . what Beth Chatto does all day) lists of plants . . . grasses, what might do well in a small town garden, lemon trees, alpines . . . and how to grow some of them; there's a list of essential gardening tools which begins with a dibber (a dibber!) and a few glimpses into horticultural economics. It's all over the place. No. Not quite all over the place - it's profoundly English (Alexei the Russian bulb and seed seller aside). And slightly nostalgic. Here's the last sentence from a piece about composting from 1967 -
'Until horsemanship returns as a leisure pursuit in the way that the Englishman has gone back to his boats, compost is the cheapest and most convenient means of providing leaven for the lump.'
Have I no criticisms or complaints? None to stop me enjoying the book. After the excellent introduction by the editor (Tim Richardson) I was expecting the articles to be in chronological order and they aren't. Styles of gardening and of writing have changed over the more-than-half century the book covers. It would have been interesting to have observed this development . . . or maybe not . . . maybe there would have been decades in which I despaired.
The really annoying thing (the only really annoying thing) is that although it's fun to read from beginning to end, once you've done that, it's hard to navigate back to articles you'd like to read again. There's no index and the contents pages give the titles of sections but not who wrote them.
Which means I have two pieces of advice:
first buy the book,
second use the blank pages at the back for notes so you can find again what you might want to look for.
It's expensive; £25. But it's hardback and the kind of book you're likely to be dipping in and out of for years. It's fruit-and-vegetable-light (I'd say) - but it isn't a 'how-to book'. It's the swing of the writing that matters. No pictures - but the paper is good and the whole pleasant to handle.
AND IT COMES OUT TODAY!
Of Rhubarb and Roses - Ed. Tim Richardson - at the publisher's site.
Of Rhubarb and Roses - Ed. Tim Richardson - on Amazon
Of Rhubarb and Roses - Ed. Tim Richardson - from The Telegraph itself (Cheaper that way - £20 plus £1:35 for p&p but you have to phone to order.)
I think I'm obliged by some legal rules
to say the publisher sent me the book
but the review reflects my opinions
and I haven't been paid for the post.