Sunday, 28 March 2010

Buckingham Palace Garden

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?
I walked round the garden and breathed the fresh air.

Why are things seldom as one expects them? I have seen the gardens at Buckingham Palace before. But only the very public view of it, from below the garden front. That is the lawn where the famous Garden Parties are held: where honoured ladies in hats, gents suited and booted, hover in expectation for a chat and a cuppa with her madje.

But I have recently been for a private view of the gardens. Well, as private as is possible with twenty three other people present. And I had imagined that somewhere – born of long remembered tales of Lewis Carroll, C.S.Lewis or Frances Hodgson Burnett no doubt - that tucked away somewhere there was a hidden and private garden.

Well, I was wrong. There is no secret garden. Just some handsome trees, lots of stunning shrubs, waves of brilliant daffodils and waterside plantings. None of the Royals don their wellies and gardening gloves at Buck House. It was in the Gardens at Mey that the Queen Mother pruned her roses and at Highgrove that Charles hones his design skills and tries out his green ideas. And one gets the impression that Her Majesty the Queen and Princess Anne are more au fait with the muck than the magic.

Henry VIII first had his eye on this landscape back in the 1500’s. James I planted mulberry trees (the wrong sort for the silk production he envisaged) and successive monarchs dabbled with formality. But in 1760 the garden was professionally designed by the famous Lancelot Brown who swept away anything that even hinted at formality.

For him it was all serpentine paths, turf, trees and still water. Not a straight line in sight. Fortunately there was no-one in residence who was very interested in the garden (William IV chose to live at Clarence House instead) or willing to spend money on its upkeep after that. Queen Victoria is supposed to have said that only the dog enjoyed the garden!

I say, ‘fortunately’, because too much cash and too much insistence on the fashionable, is responsible for the ruination of many a garden. Later, John Nash had a go at dredging the lake, but left the informal layout well alone. The choice of planting and the lake encouraged wild-life and when finally Victoria’s beloved Albert took an interest in the garden it was fortunate too that he valued it. By enhancing its structures and planting more trees.

Only one long border has been added since Brown’s original design, bowing to the late Victorian and Edwardian craze for herbaceous planting. It was designed to stun the garden party visitors with a riot of colour in June. And then a traditional rose garden – now pruned to perfection – was planted, sitting slightly uncomfortably in its setting. These, then, were the only formal Reptonian touches. Two modest deviations from the simplicity of the English Landscape style.

It is so rare to see such an unspoilt informal garden on such a formal site. Banish all ideas of Versailles, perish the thought of Villa d’Este, forget parterres and topiary. Here the garden of Buckinham Palace is a natural green and pleasant place in the midst of hustle and bustle and buildings. Rus in urbe. A peaceful, private parkland in the heart of London. And I quite understand why the Royal family might like to keep it that way.


Tuesday, 9 March 2010

South African Writers – Coetzee, Brink, Gordimer, Paton et al.

Off to beautiful Cape Town for a holiday and a bit of research I packed my novels: one of the best bits of the holiday – wall to wall reading. A last minute panic that these might run out, I looked on my bookshelves for unread paperbacks. Coetzee. Perfect. A South African author. Immerse myself in the culture sort of thing.

Now I have read a few books by Coetzee. Brilliant writer if not a bundle of laughs. Disgrace was a novel that certainly gets to the heart of South African life and the violence that wrecks lives. But what did I pick up? Slow Man. I should have checked first.

I am going to South Africa. I want to read a South African writer writing about South Africa. What do I do, I pick up a novel by Coetzee (A SA writer alright) but find the novel is set in Australia. That’s where he lives now. Australia.

It’s good, no doubt about it. Slow novel about Slow Man. Very readable, touches of humour and perception. But as Slow Man never leaves his flat he could be living anywhere. I suppose he could even have been living in a suburb of Durban, Port Elizabeth or Cape Town.

Of course, I could have chosen to read some of the other great names of SA literature. One of the most well known books must be that of Olive Shriener – The Story of An African Farm – made famously into a film. Although it describes a fate that has befallen women throughout the centuries, her character makes a choice that we do not often read about. However, the life she describes hardly exists anymore in the Cape.

Ask any Capetonian whom one should read when visiting the Cape and those of a certain age will suggest a favourite of theirs, Laurence Green. His easy style travelogues are a pleasant read but leisurely travel, drawn out three course lunches and descriptions of picturesque spots are largely a thing of the past for South Africans. Set from the nineteen twenties on his stories are now period pieces.

Of course, there are later famous novelists. Nadine Gordimer, for one, an exceptional writer, so perceptive, but she gets down to some pretty gritty realism in her work. A bit dated now, in some ways, but sadly totally up to date in her descriptions of shanty towns and life for the average unemployed South African.

Andre Brink, another big name, can also be a bit of - well, how can I put it – a depressing read. The Other Half of Silence is pretty brutal and his others are also fairly heavy work in my opinion. In an attempt to be more upbeat I could perhaps suggest some younger or more recent South African writers.

There is Barbara Trapido’s book, Frankie & Stankie, detailing what life was like in the Cape in the fifties. She doesn’t do the ‘great work of literature’ bit but what a good story teller she is. This novel is a much lighter read than the others I mention and one (at last) with laugh aloud humour. And Mark Behr; his first novel The Smell of Apples is very good. Definitely an insight into modern African life in the Cape – but an unsettling one for several reasons.

But to choose just one, after all these, I would still plump for Alan Paton’s classic, Cry, The Beloved Country. In my opinion it still deserves the prize for epitomizing life in South Africa. A more simple, moving and sad story would be hard to find. Although, as in Gordimer’s short stories, it is heartbreaking to notice the lack of change for the better in such an absolutely blessed and beautiful country.


PS If you can suggest other authors you think give a good picture of the Cape please comment but if you prefer to make a private point you can always email me at